In the woods – fear, love and the erotic


I felt compelled to give this piece about fear an introduction, to explain it, but it is not an apologia. I wrote some time ago about honouring depression, about allowing depression to live rather than further depressing the psyche by talking to it with the voice of reason (there’s more here) and the irony in writing this introduction and thereby placing the piece that follows in quotation marks, does not escape me.

My purpose in writing this blog has always been twofold: firstly, to work towards (as far as I am able) a different type of therapy – an approach to depression, distress and anxiety that is engaged with the world rather than distant from it. The second purpose is to model this approach, develop it, ride the waves of instinct, and to work through my own material. If I succeed in keeping myself in the world, then that will support my method. If not – well, that’s information too. Carl Jung, in the letter I quoted in the first piece linked above, reminds the reader that his method works for him and him alone, that he cannot speak for what others would do. But if what I write here is of value to only one other person, then that is good enough.

So no apologies: my desire is to bring back the instinctual as an equal partner to the intellectual. I love both, but they have been split in our culture, the instinctual held in contempt. Positive psychology is in charge: the broken, sick and vulnerable parts of ourselves are sanctioned, criminalised, marginalised and feared. I do not apologise for defending them, for pleading their case, for insisting on their legitimacy or for demanding that other voices are heard. Allowing the instinctual is not done through the tyranny of well-being, or from the deep listening and mindful focus that many cannot achieve. Rather it is by acknowledging that our sickness originates in our culture.

Love creates change

Above all else, change is catalysed through love. I write often of the erotic: it contains sexual love but it is much greater, it is our connection to the world, it is in everything. Sometimes we are blessed enough to hear ‘I love you’, said with both humility and honesty, and an extraordinary thrill plays through the body. Those are the words that bring a spring in the step and a cheery greeting. This is the glow and the poise of knowing – yes, knowing – that we are accepted, whether for a day or ten years.

But the erotic is also the bird singing in the tree and the flower pushing between the paving stones. It is the force that drives the dolphin into the air, that lights the promontory (where Oberon heard ‘a sea-maid utter such dulcet and harmonious breath’). It is the quartz glittering in the rock, it is the courage of people who risk everything for a felt sense of injustice, it is the elderly and infirm who protest against cuts, it is life itself.

There are so many images one might use to illustrate the erotic, but my search brought me this fragment of a mural from Pompeii. It is literal, but I liked its energy and humanity. Sometimes the erotic is hard to find or nearly absent (for example, in some drear neoliberal monolith) and often fear blocks the path, hinders the flow. I hope that what follows works with that.

Sexual scene on a Pompeian mural
Sexual scene on a Pompeian mural


The first truly sunny warm day of the year and the sea calls me. I think of Shoreham, the blinding silver mirror of the sea, and of the dark crinkly purple shoots of sea kale that will have started to poke through the shingle. But this is Saturday and I have a vile cold (again) so, my immune system compromised, I decide against it. As soon as I get to the station I realise I have made the right choice. People are everywhere, with bicycles, backpacks and walking poles, as if on a trek through Nepal rather than a destination in Surrey or Hampshire. My stomach burns and I ask myself what I resent. Surely it is unreasonable to feel pleasure in spring bird song, the emergence of fat bumblebees and the acid green of new leaves, but to be angry with people for coming out too. I reflect on undeveloped consciousness (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) and the enjoyment of warmth limited to the removal of clothes. Unreasonably, it is this that angers me.

I am that sort of person despised as a miserablist, my enjoyment of a sunny day spoiled by thoughts of climate change. This is a snapshot and only one part, but my mood is one of mourning, as much for the missing parts of myself (the powerful, the zany, the childlike) as anything else. I will be walking and I am apprehensive of cyclists dinging their bells behind me so that I have to jump out of their way. If I want to pass someone in front of me I’ll say: “Morning” or “Excuse me”. Walkers don’t have personal bells to ping at people who walk more slowly, so why, I ask myself, should the power of speech abandon cyclists? I also acknowledge that I’m not feeling very well physically, my chest hurts, my legs ache, I’m tired, so I shall not be too self-critical. Only later in the walk, after I’m committed, do I discover that it is six miles – not far normally, but a lot when I’m sick.

The dismal café

I arrive at Leatherhead, a surprisingly unpleasant place, with a nasty shopping mall. The café I stop at serves the kind of coffee and pastry I might have expected to get thirty years ago. As I walk through the high street I am aware of my judgements and thoughts dinging like the bells of an army of cyclists.  Here are two young women, office workers, comparing the logistics of their narrow ambitions in voices too loud, too overlapping, for either of them to listen.

There’s the family eating outside a branch of Subway, the parents and children disturbingly obese, physically carrying the shame and disapproval of the culture. Subway reminds me of the American comedy-drama ‘Chuck’, which it sponsored, in which the main protagonists (all members of various US security services) regularly refer to, and accept without question, the existence of rendition, black sites and regime change. I watched every episode, supping deep of the amiability, the escapism, the ‘nerd becomes hero’ mythos, barely conscious of how the series normalised the unacceptable until I was free of its trance.

Grumbling and mumbling to myself, and conscious of looks, I keep going. Oh yes, ‘looks’ – I think of that offensive advertisement for a cold remedy that carries the strapline ‘colds are never a good look’. Clearly illness renders one unwell. Sometimes, certainly not always, one also looks unwell. This odious advertising suggests that looking well is so important that we cannot risk a cold because we cannot be seen to be human and vulnerable. I think of the precariat – and how the most vulnerable worker is compelled to appear cheerful and employable.

A short walk and I leave this behind to find myself walking beside the River Mole, cloudy with chalk. I hope for a kingfisher, but I’m unlucky. There’s a Brimstone butterfly, newly emerged from hibernation. I count six more on my walk, all far enough apart to be separate insects, though taking a photo proves impossible. Perhaps the source of ‘butterfly’, they dance and flutter like scraps of pretty paper in the air, sometimes resting for a moment before darting into the breeze again, lit by the sunlight, and their free movement and restless energy fills me with momentary appreciation and contentment.

Brimstone butterfly
Brimstone butterfly


Before long I’m in Norbury Park and lost. I miss a turn and wander around foolishly, confounded by similar paths and tracks. Occasional signs are for Public Bridleways or Permissive Bridleways, no destination suggested. I start to feel anxious. Aren’t we vulnerable animals? I wonder what it would be like if there were only animal tracks or if I couldn’t hear the angry whine of distant motorbikes (the background noise of the countryside in these parts). There is no GPS signal and my map isn’t good enough, but obstinacy stops me from asking the way of the one or two people I meet. I reflect on the difficulty of asking for help. More often than not the directions we receive are misleading or given unwillingly. Worst of all, there is misdirection.

Of course my obstinacy stems from my fear of being seen not to know, or to be unable to intuit, my way through the woods. I learned from my father that the price of instruction was disparagement. I try to will myself to enjoy my surroundings but find it almost impossible. The printed directions don’t help, a picnic site is not the right picnic site. One of the picnic tables invites me to ‘explore – experience – create – connect’ and I take up the challenge. The legion of kissing gates through which I am supposed to pass have disappeared. I think of kissing. I think of having company in the woods, to be lost together and how that would be nice, then I could pretend to take charge (and the lichen grows in this direction, and the sun sets over there, so we need to go here).

Naked fear

I also think about support, as I lean against a warm rough trunk. My life, never an easy one, has entered its bleakest trajectory, and my support is isolated and infrequent as I struggle to resist total annihilation. Being open to instinct means listening for clues, finding the art and literature that speaks to one’s personal difficulties. The day after my walk I found this from the psychoanalyst Robert Stein, writing as if for me alone:

The distrust that men feel about a woman’s love, nowadays, is generally valid. This is primarily because so many modern women feel shattered by the slightest rejection from the man they love, even when they have done something to provoke his anger. Because they are so dependent on the man’s lovingness to keep up their illusion of their own lovingness, they tend to crumble and feel worthless when the man feels negatively towards them. Of course, this gives the man an enormous power, but the woman counteracts this with an even greater power: her capacity to paralyze the man with guilt, which is her only defence against the brute force of masculine impersonality and cruelty. It is a dirty tool to use this instinctual power against a man when it is really her own feeling of inadequacy that is undermining her. But she is generally unable to face this; instead, she expresses a deep hurt and self-righteous reproachment to the man. The man is made to feel inhumanly cold and cruel, while in reality he has only been humanly angry. This evokes a deep anger in the man because it gives him no possibility of being and expressing himself with her, and it places the entire burden of maintaining the love connection on him. In addition, out of the shattered self of the woman an enormous wrath often emerges. A man rightfully fears the damage and destruction which she is capable of inflicting on others or herself when she is fragmented. How can a man trust a woman’s love when she may destroy him or herself if the honest expression of his feelings may hurt her?

Robert Stein, Incest and Human Love, 1973

That quotation needs balance:

Still another side to the modern love problem is a man’s desperate need for a loving woman and the demand she places upon the woman to fulfil the archetypal image. He gets at the woman where she feels most inadequate, yet she must resist becoming this image for him if she is to realize herself. Because of this demand, she becomes even less loving than she is. The legitimate resentment of the woman at being forced into an archetypal role is thus piled upon the man’s legitimate resentment of the woman’s lack of lovingness. Only if the man can remove his demand for the archetypal feminine from the woman and find it within himself; and only if the woman can free herself of her dependency on the man’s love as a way of finding her connection to her own love, is there any hope of breaking up this destructive pattern in the modern male-female relationship.

Robert Stein, ibid., 1973

The woods are still, with many beech trees (the last to show green) and hazel coppice. I don’t hear many birds in this wood, just once a group of squabbling jackdaws, otherwise only my struggling breath as I climb. Does this vulnerability explain our hubris, our need to build monumental structures, to pursue our ecocidal policies? Does the naked fear that starts to rise, the prickling sweaty horror, ensure that forests are over-managed and signposted at best, cut down and built over at worst? I see signs for Druids Grove and baulk at what I imagine to be an unrewarding visit to another picnic site, mostly because I am still anxious to find my way. Later I discover that this is a grove of ancient yews, some of the oldest trees in the country, and I feel ashamed (and vow to return).

The magical garden

The trees and paths seem indistinguishable, the silence deafening because the only voice I can hear is the self-critical voice, which becomes more strident by the minute: why are you afraid? This is Surrey not the Gobi desert, get a grip on yourself. I stop to breathe, realising that I am close to panic. And it as that point, when I have allowed my breath, that I become aware of the most fantastic garden of moss all around me.

Fallen trunks are carpeted in spongy green carpets. Living trees and stands of tiny saplings bear mossy skirts. Small wonder that this forest is so quiet, sounds are muffled in the moss. Enchanted I stop to touch the springy softness and immediately I feel the release as my fear subsides. The reasonable thought emerges, that I’m walking in the right direction and soon I’ll find my way out, but to allow the reasonable I first had to allow the magic and immediacy of my surroundings.

Out of the valley

Finally, I leave the wood behind, and as I walk into Westhumble, there’s the buzz of a light aircraft. I want to describe it as a monoplane as if there might be some doubt. I recognise that I have entered a sequestered world of riches, the only sounds to disrupt the quiet are those that of small aeroplanes and hedge trimmers. This is the England of P.G. Wodehouse and Dennis Wheatley. It comes as no surprise when a sign announces the Royal School of Church Music. Only a red-faced organist hurrying by with a sheaf of scores is missing. I remember singing in the church choir as a boy, having to compete even then for various medallions indicative of merit. The houses are called cottages even if they are mansions, and even here among the sentimental names, the camellias past their best, and the prominent alarm systems, there is resonance. Always a name, a connection, an echo: Mulberry Cottage, Wild Berry Lodge, The White House.

Unreal rewards

One lukewarm sausage sandwich and a pint of fizz later, I pass a mock Elizabethan pile as the owner emerges from one of his three chariots. He regards me with a thin-lipped look of disdain, patrician nose slightly up as if detecting an odour of sweat. The truth is that I envy him. Not his cars, his dreadful pile of a house or his awful work, but his certainty and his comfort. Those are things he shares with the young women in the throwback café, content with climbing the ladders of accomplishment. The rewards are tangible, whether the log fire of the rentier or the new build of the office worker, rewards that seem more remote to me than ever.

I walk through an extensive vineyard, the serried vines separated with grass lanes but little other evidence of life, so I’m glad when a woolly brown dog keeps me company for a while. We ignore each other but as he falls back to snuffle and root at the interesting smells, then races forward, he feels like the company I need today. From far away his owner calls him back but he ignores her, to my secret satisfaction.

Vineyard near Dorking
Vineyard near Dorking

Turning a corner I hear the first siren for hours, announcing my return to the ‘normal’. I had hoped for a tea room at Dorking, but there’s nothing near the station except dual carriageway. An idiot in a shell suit accelerates his bike and does a wheelie escaping from the lights, the ambient noise I had noticed before transformed into a deafening screech that reverberates in my head.

As soon as I get back to London I start to feel awful again. Out in the air, even the air of Surrey, the sneezing and runny nose stopped almost completely. But now the madness descends again. I am transfixed, rooted to the spot in the supermarket as I see blackberries from Mexico, raspberries from South Africa, and blueberries from Chile. It is not as if this profligacy was new to me, it is that once one has been anywhere remotely authentic, the opposite becomes even more glaringly apparent.

What am I to make of the day? I took a path into the woods and got lost. The path I found out was not the one that I had planned to take. I nearly panicked, but Pan is not to be reasoned with. He is a god, and he demands respect and fealty. Pan of course was the god who died1, and this marked the ascendancy of Christianity and reason. As Jung famously opined ‘The gods have become our diseases’, so the death and reappearance of Pan as panic and anxiety remind us of our failure to tend his altar.

Finding energy

I have seen that there are routes other than the ones imperfectly marked on the map. And the mistakes made in map reading can be corrected as the place is revisited. I will go again, visit the grove of yews and offer something, find the suggested route, see how it feels, but I am sure that in many ways the route I took yesterday was the right one. At some level, I needed the fear, the powerlessness, so that I could ‘explore – experience – create – connect’. On my return, I found the writing I needed to find, to give context to some of my present difficulties and to help me withdraw my anima projections (more about those here).

The other day a colleague spoke of a workshop she had attended in which the facilitator (another woman) had talked about the importance of ‘cock energy’. This is such a good expression. All of us, both men and women, need to sometimes find cock energy, to thrust ourselves into life. But the abiding image of my walk was the Brimstones: I thought of the coloured paper we used to tear up for mosaics at primary school, how each torn piece was like a butterfly. As I try to break the shackles of fear, as I hunt for what remains of thrust and momentum, the lightness of the Brimstones will stay with me.

  1. Or did he? From Wikipedia:
    Robert Graves (The Greek Myths) reported a suggestion that the hearers aboard the ship, including a supposed Egyptian, Thamus, apparently misheard Thamus Panmegas tethneke ‘the all-great Tammuz is dead’ for ‘Thamus, Great Pan is dead!’, Thamous, Pan ho megas tethneke. “In its true form, the phrase would have probably carried no meaning to those on board who must have been unfamiliar with the worship of Tammuz which was a transplanted, and for those parts, therefore, an exotic custom.”

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