FLASHBACK: The Old Forest

Originally published on October 8, 2012, The Old Forest was one of the first two or three posts ever to appear on this humble mash of a site. In fact, it was convenient for me to post at the time because it had already existed for some time. It’s a brief but worthwhile local legend known to few and passed to me through channels I’ve sworn to keep anonymous. 

In honor of my retelling of the tale as part of Episode One of the Wizard of Monadnock Radio Hour, I am reposting this for new listeners as much as old and nostalgic readers. I love you all the same. 

The Old Forest: An Introductory Myth

Now it is a well-known fact that the whole of the forests of our region are extremely young as far as large forests are concerned. Our forebears—cultural if not genetic—in their zeal to make their mark and craft a new world in their imagine consumed the Old Forest that ruled this land for thousands of years. To be sure, the Forest had been trimmed many a time over the ages, shrinking for a time and then growing back again. But this was different. No less than all of the Old Forest was required to satiate these pioneers with such hellfire in their veins. Here, there, and everywhere, the Old Forest was systematically chopped, transported, transformed into new structures ,and torched for fuel and heat.

Where the Old Forest once spread its wide green arms in a dark and majestic canopy, hundreds of tiny agricultural fiefdoms sprang up all over the place. A new spirit took hold over the countryside, the old one now hushed. Quick to evolve, a shift in priority and population led to the gradual abandonment of the sprawling farm fiefs and towards the more familiar concentrations of villages and towns. At times by design and others by fate, a new forest slowly grew up where once the old one had been. Akin to the elder wood in form and even intent, the orignal spirit of old yet seemed lost, perhaps forgotten altogether.

As you walk through our forest today, the trees are limited in that which they speak. Their memories are short. You see the eerie stone walls stretching for miles in what would seem to be perfect wilderness. These speak louder than the adolescent trees. You wonder what sort of forest-man crafted these endless wonders of rock and construction to live permanently in harmony with the ferns and moss and heather. It was the men of hellfire, making the boundaries of their city-sized farms they so quickly forgot. The ghosts of these builders travel along the bounds of these walls and cry out to you today from the silent stones. You can feel them in the back of your neck, and you can hear them if you really strain to try.

The rocks remember more than just their conquerors. They remember the land of the huge farms that were once the Old Forest, the earth from which they were dug with such fervor—and many of them remember still the underground touch of the roots of the trees of the Old Forest. All around us, and perhaps most accessible of all, we can hear these shrill voices, but their message often sounds garbled from too much handling. Too much manipulation.

Indeed, many of those present in our familiar woods have better memories than our friends the trees. It is said that some of the ferns growing in the most desolate and still untrodden places can remember even before the Great Ice came from the north. They remember the time even before the Old Forest. The old ferns teach what they know to the trees and moss nearby, that it might not be lost, although the word seldom travels far. Legends and whispers also tell of nine living tortoises who remember when the Great Ice began to recede and the birth of the Old Forest. The wise old tortoises are ever willing to tell their tale as well—but the odds are against any of us ever encountering one.

It is a little-known secret, however, that we mortals in this post-modern era, if we wish to scent the breeze and glimpse the boughs of the Old Forest, maybe even to feel the quick pang of its noble old spirit for the briefest of seconds in our heart, we can do so via communion with some of our familiar wooded lakes. The streams and brooks of the area have shifted and migrated dozens of times, and even our mightiest rivers have tended to travel a bit over the ages. But find the right lake? The right lake’s been holding its water long enough to remember everything about the Old Forest, even its spirit, which these lakes recall as we do a long-departed old friend. To the right lake, vacation homes and motorboats are little more than passing wisps of cloud moving briskly along—the lake, you remember, reflects the entire sky, and recalls the world in such terms. Every tree, once reflected in the gently rippling water’s edge, is part of its chilly depths forever.

Other beings, as rare perhaps as the ancient tortoises and less interested in being noticed, also remember the deep, forgotten past. With such rare commonality of memory and purpose, it is only fitting that such beings often make these stoic lakes their abode. But because we refuse in this post-modern age to acknowledge their existence, their wisdom is inaccessible to us.

There is one such lake, easily found, which is said to deserve special attention. Located in what is now called Cheshire Country, its name is Granite. It is neither especially large nor remarkably deep, but the Great Ice, as it departed, intentionally punched its bowl into the earth, leaving one unusual feature—a small wooded island now used frequently for fishing and swimming.

Believe or disbelieve according to your inclination, but old and newly forgotten legends tell of an ageless queen who lives in perpetuity beneath the surface. Though unfathomably ancient, the snow-white features of her face and mantle speak of indescribable youth and royal beauty. She remains unseen through the busy summer season, resting in a conscious sort of slumber in the darkest, most forgotten corners of the depths. In winter, however, it is often the hapless and drunken men ice fishing that catch glimpse of her terrifyingly appealing visage through the ice. Those who choose to tell the tale, however, are seldom believed. Her name is long since lost to the bygone ages, and though no one knows for sure, it is said that she was once queen of the entire Ashuelot Valley below to the south. When her queendom came to an end, she came to Granite Lake to spend the years and centuries mostly in hidden slumber beneath the water.

She is not alone.

For centuries, men have reported seeing a mighty stag prancing atom the little wooded island. As a stag, he appears roughly twice the size of a typical modern buck, and this has always been a source of wonder. Since the deer has been known at all, men have been trying to shoot it. No one has ever succeeded in hitting the creature from the shore, and any man setting foot on the tiny island, if he finds anything at all, sees only a sandy-haired, strong-looking fellow, or sometimes a small and happy freckle-faced boy.

His name too has been forgotten, but he is unquestionably the guardian of the island. Many believe he was once the husband to the queen—perhaps even the king—but now he simply guards a treasure that remains mired in the unknown. You see, the trees that grow on the little island are the last of the Old Forest. The hellfire pioneers never bothered to trouble with the lumber on this little island, and so it has lived on under the protection of the giant buck.

What even fewer know is that one single pine tree and one carefully preserved stump predate even the spirit of the Old Forest. Indeed, this one ancient wizard of an evergreen managed to grow even amidst the Great Ice—it was thus that the island was spared the Ice’s sculpting chisel.

The curious point—if such things can get more curious than they already are—is that anyone who knows the immutable laws of the universe knows that no relic ever lives on as a dead thing or a shell. Any spirit or person or powerful remnant of the past exists not so much as a reminder of bygones but yet in pursuit of some unseen and unfulfilled purpose.

How it is known is a complete mystery, because no credible witnesses exist to verify, but the most respected of our storytellers claim that the stag reverts to human form every Harvest Moon, swims to the shore and travels among the people for the evening, before returning around two o’clock after the last of the bars of the town have shut down. To what end? Anyone’s guess. But it is further claimed that afterwards, upon the autumnal equinox, the queen rises from the waters onto the island to speak with the guardian. What is said between them each year is also a mystery.

Even the new forest, however, is not without its whispers. Vague rumor has it that the old queen is not in retirement but hibernation, awaiting only the end of her age-long winter to emerge once more. Even as she awaits word this very year from her friend the stag, it is whispered that the spirit of the Old Forest, guided by the spirit of the eldest pine, and acting through the dutiful guardian, is beginning to reemerge.

The tales are told between the trees, who heard it from other trees, who say they got it from the whispers of the island itself. “Once it was thus and so it shall again be.”

So listen to the rustle of the breeze in the leaves, strain to hear the jumbled cries of forgotten stone walls, attune to the rhythm of a worthy old lake—and may you be not too distracted to notice when something old and forgotten made new again washes over us all.

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