What would it be like to live and work at the heart of a forest? I put this question to artist and educator Valerianna Claff, whose RavenWood Forest Studio nestles among the hemlocks of western Massachusetts....
"Early morning sun finds its way through the trees in long, angled rays," writes Valerianna, describing a typical day at RavenWood. "Dew rises from the glistening mosses becoming a gentle mist, a hermit thrush sings far off in the forest. I sit in a chair outside the back door, watching the majesty of the morning, taking note of the inch or two of unfurling the ferns have managed since yesterday. Sipping coffee, I mostly look and listen – a kind of morning meditation – letting my mind wander and feeling the shape of twinleaf and foamflower in my body. I feel the gentle movement of the long, lacelike hemlock boughs, blown by a slight movement of air. The towering trunks bring me to the awareness of my spine and I watch as a red eft meanders through the woodland garden. I rise and pinch a bit of new spring hemlock needles, put it in my mouth, tasting yellow-greenness and a slight hint of citrus. Under the Grandmother tree, I bend and pick a partridge berry – not very tasty – but offering some red to my morning nutrition. Kicking off my clogs, I find a place on the mosses, and go through my Qigong routine. Swatting at mosquitoes, I wish I might become evolved enough to let them be. Pasha brushes past my leg, damp from his morning wander, full of purrs and stories, a wild glint in his green-gold eyes.
"It has been ten years since I came to this forest, and I think I am beginning to know something of the nature here. I am not so far from civilization, only a mile from the center of town, but such a tiny town with nothing more than a library (about the size of my downstairs), a general store, church, fire station, post office and a few bed-and-breakfasts. Not one stoplight or gas station or pub. Livestock and wildlife outnumber people, and the lack of human-made sounds is noticeable. Unlike my years in the city, when I hear a lawnmower here, it seems to bring me some comfort, as if to say, no, you are not completely alone in the wilderness. A twenty-minute drive brings me to Northampton, a small city with a big heart. From there, the road leads to small towns and cities, famous educational institutions, museums and the house of Emily Dickenson, which seems always to be waving at me from across the valley.
"When I arrived here, I had a plan of a small retreat center with drum circles and large seasonal gatherings and guest teachers and performances. Wandering the land in that first autumn, my plans fell off me, floating to the earth to mingle with oak leaves. As I began to feel the spirit of this forest, I understood that this was not a place of grand views and loud, expansive expression, but a quiet, inward land, asking for listening and rooting and reflecting beside still pools and moss covered ledges. On the first misty walk my mother took with me here, she said she was expecting King Arthur to ride over the hill, as the land seemed to be whispering stories as we walked.
"As the steward of a deep and inward forest, I am called to sit and listen and trust in stillness. Again and again, as the twenty-first century woman that I am becomes uncomfortable with stillness, I am asked to wait, to listen longer, remain still, root deeper.
"The seasonal gatherings to celebrate Equinoxes and Solstices do happen, but they are small, intimate gatherings around a small fire where songs and stories are shared and owls and coyotes offer their calls to the circle. Small groups of seekers come to do their inner work, learning from the stillness and remembering something about dreaming and how to let their bodies be held by the earth and to find ways of communicating and knowing beyond words and intellect.
"The forest has taught me – as any wild place would – to embrace the long, dark days of winter as a time to nourish the soul with fire and stories and deep, deep dreaming. I understand something of a dark underworld journey, and the enormous gifts of seeing it through to the end. A few years ago, after the loss of a loved one, I found myself on such a journey… it seemed to never end. I had to ignore impulses to go out and manifest and DO as a stronger voice continued to tell me to wait. One cold February morning, I awoke with a clear knowing of how to move outward again. I understood that I needed to bring my teaching more fully to the forest, to integrate all the parts of me, to share my relationship with the wild and to invite others to know stillness. I needed a grant to build a studio. I looked up a grant I had heard about that offers assistance to forest-based businesses encouraging forest owners to keep their land forested. The grant had not given out money in several years, but that year they were offering grants and the application was due in a month. I applied, got the grant, and RavenWood Forest, Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts was built.
"A precious gift I have received from this forest is the gift of remembering. Finding a place just far enough away from the bustle, where the wild feels bigger than the human world, I remember myself as a soul being, quite removed from the definitions, boxes and labels that culture puts on me. When the owl comes to spend the day on her sunny perch outside my window, or a bear lumbers by, or I find a luna moth resting in a shady spot under a leaf, or I walk out to a garden filled with hundreds of dragon flies, darting this way and that, I am entranced and fully present with what is left of the wild within me.
"But there are shadows here, too. One cannot spend years peering into the dark, still pools without being brought to one’s knees. Living alone here, I sometimes need to seek refuge in a town to walk around and look in shops and NOT be down under the towering trees. I need to go to the ridge top and be loud and expansive. My job as an adjunct art professor helps with getting me out, and, as teaching does, keeps my world full of young folk and forces me out of dreaming and into intellectual conversation. This is good for me. The long commute and the less than fair pay isn’t so good, but I stay connected.
"So it might seem that I have become a bit like the witch in the woods, like the character from my favorite childhood film, “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. She lives in an idyllic cottage in the forest, knows the language of birds and foxes, grows her own food and is the wise woman healer that the children bring their injured animals to. This is the romantic version, in truth, I can’t quite get enough light for a vegetable garden to grow well, there is a big mortgage to pay, I live very close to the financial edge, and my sensitivities to chemicals and mold have me flattened more than active these days.
"Being flattened however, isn’t always a negative thing, I am called to stillness again, and there is good medicine in that. As a storyteller in image, words and song, whose inspiration is the mystery of the forest, quiet dreaming is essential to my creative work. This past year, as I grieve the loss of my mother, and am healing the roots of my illness, I find myself painting images that tell the stories of the deep forest. I’m beginning to get at the essence of this place - a dark and mysterious woodland – with gentle wildflowers growing from the leaf mold, and root-tangled caverns under fallen trees that might well lead to the underworld. The stories that find me here are fierce as well as gentle. I live amongst large predators who might eat my beloved cat friend or even me, where the tiny Woolly Adelgid threatens to kill all my trees, and the well has run dry once or twice, leaving the herbs in the garden to wilt. I sometimes fantasize about life in a gypsy caravan, traveling from town to town, telling stories and singing with my drum, but I am more like a tree than a songbird, and its good to know who I am, lest I follow someone else’s dream and find myself utterly lost without my tribe of trees.
"I spread my mother’s ashes in the moss garden on the last day of May, as she asked me to do. I think about the blessing of this – of how humans of old stayed where their ancestor’s bones decayed and became part of the soil, and how their very DNA became a part of that land. I wonder how living on land where one’s ancestors have been buried for centuries might be – would it be easier to speak with stones? Will the mosses begin to whisper their secrets to me, now that my mother’s spirit mingles with the ground here?
"The path beneath my feet is soft and spongy. I think about the generations of trees that have fallen to earth and become this ground, the tree-ancestors of the forest. Bones of the Eastern Woodland Indians and the first European settlers, long gone to dust, mingle here. The bear who didn’t put on enough fat before an unusually long winter is curled beneath the roots of an enormous pine tree, her body nourishing its roots as she dreams her forever dream. As I walk, I hear the call of a raven, shattering the quiet and filling the vast space between us. I sit on a boulder I call the whispering stone, my quiet cat beside me, listening as the raven’s call fades and the sound of black wings thrums past overhead."