Watch the animated video for This Forest, a song taken from Bright Field (RootBeat Records), the latest album from The Rheingans Sisters. The video is followed by a lovely piece written by Rowan Rheingans which provides a personal insight into the song.
In Bright Field, they have created an album bursting with worldly joys and shot through with intimate sorrow and wisdom. Thomas Blake, Folk Radio.
Film by Harriet Holman Penney
Solitude, Perspective and This Forest by Rowan Rheingans
I read something recently about how solitude can be best understood not as the desire to be alone, but as the desire to be in the company of the millions of creatures and life forms that make up the natural world. Solitude in this way is experienced when we hear, smell and are close to the forms of life around us that are not human. Perhaps then we remember where we come from and the natural systems to which we belong. Maybe the buzzing, croaking, howling din of the natural world is actually the silence and solitude that we had been craving in the people-full cities. I can’t remember where I read this but… I agree.
this forest looks a lot like us
although the trees stand taller
weathered by the wind and snow
sheltering each other
This particular forest is near the village of Trellech, in the Welsh borders. And the mist lay so thickly on the morning I found it that it was only possible to see the trees, grasses, ferns, anthills and mosses where they grew directly in front and around me. For a few hours, I moved through the soggy green cathedral, muddy underfoot; my trainers eventually so full of water I had to take them off and pour it all out.
I had been staying at a friend’s house nearby while they were on holiday, relishing the time to reflect, write and play music. But after a few days of ‘solitude’, a familiar darkness came over me. Sometimes (regularly, even) the world just feels too sad, too complicated and too broken to feel like writing songs. Sometimes it feels like such a futile activity in comparison to the everyday horror which so many people are facing. But then again, a world without songs would be an even darker place.
I pricked my finger on a thorn
Then slept beyond my counting
For a hundred years or more
I was cradled by a mountain
Writers such as Roger Deakin, Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane are big influences on me and how I use nature and animals in songs to tell stories about humans and human experience. That’s what the best ‘nature writing’ is doing, I think. And, of course, the storytelling synergy between people and forests is ancient and obvious. Woods are ideal places for stories.
Another writer Sara Maitland describes how ancient woodland gives her “the same frisson of terror and delight that traditional fairy stories do” (The Guardian, Nov 2012). I found her excellent book ‘Gossip from the Forest’ on the shelf in my friend’s house in Trellech in those dark February days. In it, I read about the old folk tales that have influenced the story now popularly known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’. A woman enters the woods and pricks her finger on a thorn before falling into a long sleep in which she witnesses the whole of earth’s history up to that point. I can’t remember how the older story ends, but the idea and powerful imagery of a kind of sped-up dream-vision of human evolution, change and ’progress’ up to the current unprecedented moment stuck with me.
all I saw was synergy
and all I heard was silence
I felt a hit of energy
rolling molten down the mountain
all I saw was all there was
it was filling up the rivers
it was falling down from open skies
a dark and starry wonder
In my mind, this old story sits alongside another dream-vision that also stays within my reach (specifically it lives in a folder on my computer called ‘Inspirational Quotes’). In his book ‘Man and Time’, J. B Priestley is trying to understand and explain our place in the world; mortality, suffering and the perspective gained from standing somewhere high up and trying to take it all in. He writes about a dream in which he is standing at the top of a very tall tower, looking down while the life of every kind of bird races past him in ever quickening pace. At first he is dismayed and depressed, because this sped-up version of the world shows him only life and death and life and death and life and death again: it all seems nothing more than ‘a gigantic meaningless biological effort’. But as the gear changes and time quickens still, the birds’ short lives become impossible to see on their own and he sees only a steady vital stream he calls ‘the white flame of life itself’. Then he exclaims:
“and then it came to me, in a rocket-burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering, hurrying lambency of being. Birds, men or creatures not yet shaped and coloured, all were of no account except so far as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it, what I had thought was tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life.”
(Priestley J. B, 1947, pp. 305 – 6 )
For me, climbing up somewhere high to look out a long way has something in common with walking through the grey-green light that filters into the forest in February. It is perspective-giving to be surrounded by living things that are older than us and that will outlive us, too. Mountains in the far distance or a wild-flower really close up. Especially on the days when the world feels too dark for writing new songs, I find it helpful to recall how we are all simultaneously quite insignificant as individuals in this long human story while at the same time vital and unique expressions in the great, white flame of life.
When Anna and I commissioned Harriet Holman Penney to create an animated film for This Forest, we invited her to interpret the song. We love how her film tells a smaller, more personal story: just one small happening within the dark depths of an ancient forest which must have seen so much; one small flicker within the rushing white flame. And (as has become our practice) the melody for This Forest is hung on the bones of a much older musical form. It’s inspired by the Rondeau – a traditional dance from the South West of France. To us, the traditional tunes played for this dance seem to have a never-ending, cyclical quality to them; the first part just has to lead into the second and the second part straight back to the first, with no clear resolution.
The Rheingans Sisters Upcoming Dates
15th – Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax
17th – Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry
18th – Floodgate Ale House, Stafford
8th – Cleckheaton Folk Festival
11th-15th – North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, Aberdeen
4th – Comboros Festival, France
8th – Sidmouth Festival
26th – Towersey Festival
8th – Bromyard Folk Festival
9th – Swanage Folk Festival
21st – Saltburn Folk Club
22nd – The Witham, Barnard Castle
28th – Kings Place, London
29th – The Met, Bury
+ more TBA
Photo Credit: James Fagan