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During the summer, I stumbled across a call for contributors, for a sound art project that would be part of the Sanctuary Labs festival that takes place in the Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park each September. Sound artist Claire Archibald was looking for female audio contributors to share their memories/thoughts/emotional responses to the idea of being a woman alone in the woods and thereby create site specific installation that would be a ‘lone woman wood’ for festival goers to experience. Having grown up in a house surrounded by a small wood, the project immediately caught my imagination.

The project call out had a variety of prompts to get potential contributors thinking about the project’s areas of interest. One of the prompts involved pieces of music or field recordings, and I was reminded that I made a variety of field recordings in various woodlands over the pandemic. I’ve talked before about my adventures recording at the Merkinch Nature Reserve and down by the canal and used many of my recordings on the Ness Islands in my Out of Doors Soundscape last year. However, they weren’t the only woodland recordings. Back in April when only essential travel was allowed, I found myself in Portree for work, and took great pleasure in gathering some early morning field recordings, including in the little wood above the bay and behind the hospital. (There was a path, up the side of the hill into the trees, with a bi-lingual sign: how could I resist?) But the recordings that came immediately to mind were ones I made before that when we still couldn’t go anywhere at all, and my regular walks around Inverness, uncovered a pocket woodland just off an otherwise suburban street. Aultnaskiach Dell is a pocket wood, a rare urban community buyout, and the unusual geography of the place means that as soon as you get into the Dell proper, all sounds of the outside world disappear. As though you’ve stepped through a portal into a rather more rural area, or in my case, it felt like I stepped through a portal in time and space, back into the woods of my childhood. The perfect place for a bit of forest bathing, if that’s your thing. Even just listening back to the recordings I took that first day is transporting and soothing, like being wrapped briefly in a bit of another, safer, simpler, time and place. I knew they were the perfect recordings to accompany my forest thoughts.

Even after having filmed a short horror film in a forest as a student, I’m still less unnerved by the thought of being alone in a forest than many other people I know, regardless of gender. (As I write this it occurs to me that that is not the only time I’ve worked on a film in the forest. When I was still freelancing a few years ago, I did a short stint working on the kids show Raven in the woods near Lagganlia in the Caingorms.) After all, to me, the real fear is not that you’re alone in the woods – it’s that you’re not alone in the woods.

In the end they received 140 submissions across 11 different languages. Enough that each of the 17 trees that they were using as anchors could play a different loop of sounds, so that no two wanders through that wood would be the same, with the sounds combining, collaborating or clashing in different ways depending on the route the visitor took or the time of day they visited. Although I knew from the start that with the festival taking place at almost exactly the opposite end of the country from me, I was unlikely to be able to attend, and even if I were the chances of hearing my piece in situ during the short window I would have been able to be in the actual location, I was still a little sad to have to miss out on experiencing it first hand. The little snippets I got to experience second hand through social media, only succeeding in leaving me wanting more.

When I was a child, we lived on the edge of some woods, so my entire childhood was spent surrounded by old, tall, trees. Once I was old enough to wander unsupervised – and to respect the boundary line of the fence – I was often alone in the trees. It was only an acre or so of land, so not a real forest, but when I was small it felt vast. It was my playground and my refuge.

I learned how to be alone among those trees., to be content in my own company, in my own skin. It’s also where I learned to be still and to really listen. Every woodland and forest has it’s own soundscape, not one sound but man, changing with the weather and the season. The quieter you are, the louder and more complex it becomes. If you’re lucky and patient you may come to know them well enough that you can move through the forest as part of it’s rhythm instead of as an interloper. To look up from your book and see a bird or squirrel foraging close by, or come upon a family of roe deer grazing.

As an adult I work with sound, and the skills I learned as a child among the trees serve me well whenever I have to make field recordings. Not jus the ability to be quiet and still, but also the ability to observe and look or hear beyond the surface – to hear the wood for the trees if you will – and to blend in to my environment whether urban or rural so that whatever I’m trying to record happens around me.

During lockdown, I came across a small hidden wood – a pocket wood if you will – just off a main road in the city where I now live. Officially it’s a dell, a long, narrow, wooden cleft in the landscape, clearly too steep to easily build houses on, so it’s become a rare urban community buyout. A space for children to explore and dogs to be walked. I’ve taken several people there to explore since but the first time I visited I was alone. It was a mild Spring Sunday morning and I had headache that wouldn’t shift, a coffee and a croissant the size of my head. Stepping into the woods was like stepping into another world – all outside sounds were masked by the rushing of the stream. I passed a couple of people on the way in, but otherwise I saw not another soul during my sojourn. It’s a mixed woodland, more rhododendrons than the woods of my childhood, but closer to them than any others I’ve encountered as an adult. There were moments when it felt as though whatever portal I’d passed through in entering the woods, had transported me into my own childhood.

Somewhere along the path I drank my coffee, ate my pastry and forgot about my headache, remembering instead my pocket sound recorder and took some field recordings. Most importantly, I found a little peace to take home with me, and left a little bit of my heart behind in return.