Freedom of the woods

April 25, 2012

On the side of a hill a few days ago I met a boy of around seventeen, swathed in a rain-dripping leather cloak, tending a herd of brown and white cows. He was so surprised to see me there that he almost couldn’t speak, as if he couldn’t imagine what I was or how I possibly came to be there. As I fumbled for the map in my bag his eyes flickered nervously from my face to my hands and back again, as if half expecting me to pull out some kind of weapon, which made me extremely conscious of the axe he cradled in his arms. It was the first time in Romania that I’ve experienced a fear of outsiders – people so far have been overwhelmingly open and friendly – but it reminded me very much of this passage from Between the Woods and the Water, as Paddy walked into the Carpathian Mountains further south of here: 

‘Unknown figures in the wilderness boded no good. In the past, they were bent on rounding up laggards for feudal corvées; nowadays, it would be tax-gathering, census-compiling, exaction of grazing dues, the search for malefactors, deserters, or runaway recruits overdue for their military service – a whole range of vexatious interference with the freedom of the woods.’

In the end, I seemed to convince him that I wasn’t any kind of threat, merely weird and foreign. I continued up the hill and into the woods, where I promptly became completely entangled in a dense thicket of blackthorn which held me like some clumsy fly in a spiked, dripping web. I must have looked ridiculous. His axe would have probably helped — but I’m glad he was out of sight.

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