Quagmire: A Walk in the Woods

2 Conversations

A country lane in Texas.
I went for a walk in the woods today.

Across the road from our house is an old landed estate. Well, to be
accurate, the estate itself once included the entire town and the
countryside for miles. What's left is the demesne, the land around the
house itself. It's a working farm, but there's also a lot of woodland
in there, and six houses, including the Big House.

It's private property, but it's open to the public. Many parts are
full of walkers (and boy racers and joy-riders), especially at the
weekends. But, deeper in the woods, there are tracks where no one ever
goes. And, though I know the place well and often stray from the roads
and the main paths, it is still possible for me to get lost in

And there's another part of the woods, across the road from the
place where most people would go. It's even more private in there.
There are some large tracks – easily big enough to get a tractor or
jeep down – which are almost never walked. The farmer must pass
through that way occasionally, en route to some of the more distant of
his somewhat scattered fields. Recently there has been some work done
there. A fence has been erected to keep out the deer (in an effort to
protect the young oak trees: this is one of Ireland's oldest oak
forests), clearings have been planted, and some trees have been
felled. So it's not as quiet as it used to be. Still though, I've
never met other people in there who were just walking, like me. A
couple of hunters, once, a good while ago. They might possibly have
been paid to cull the deer. I don't know. A man and young boy felling
trees. A man surveying the area. But no one just walking.

I don't know this section of the woods as well. I'm in there often
enough, but I have a set route on large paths, from which I rarely
deviate. I enter in one place and come out in another. And that's
pretty much it. A clockwise semi-circle. Where the path heads over a
large hill near the beginning of the walk I have sometimes struck off
to the right, but I've usually turned back again. Once or twice I kept
going and got through to another track leading to the old tumbledown
boathouse on the lake and past that to the main road which cuts the
woods in two. The lake is boggy, and, in many parts, has no clearly
defined edge.

A few months ago I was with my mother in this part of the woods and
we struck off to the right from the hill, keeping, as far as possible,
to the high ground. It's a long hill, and, though it's too broad to be
called a causeway, is quite likely artificial. I remember mentioning
that, to the casual observer, there was absolutely nothing visible to
the eye to date the scene at any time in the last millennium or so.
It's a mature forest of widely spaced broadleaf. You can see quite a
distance through the trees most of the time. An expert, looking at the
landscape, would probably see signs of 'improvements' in the
landscaping. There are certainly drains. One of the few deviations
from my route through the woodland is to leave the path where it
follows what certainly is an artificial causeway. I drop off it to the
left, stroll through some very spaced trees, close enough to
discourage undergrowth, but no closer, and reach a small drain on the
far side of which is forestry plantation. I walk along this, the
boundary between woodland and forestry, for a while and suddenly the
drain becomes vastly deeper — about ten to fifteen feet, I'd judge —
and vastly older. There are mature trees growing on its edges, with
gnarled roots showing through. The forestry stops, and there are
fields to the left.

This time, when we came to the end of the hill, we came to another
drain, equally old, but not nearly as deep. It ran, so far as we could
judge, roughly parallel with the other drain and with the section of
the main path which is atop a causeway. We decided to follow it to see
where it came out. After much walking, which should have brought us,
we were thinking, nearly to the other end of the woods, we came out at
the base of the hill. Yes, we were back almost exactly where we'd
started, at the home end of the woods. We've never worked out how we
managed it.

So, today, alone, I decided to trace our route backward. I started
at the small bridge over the stream at the path just below the hill.
And I tried to follow the drain which, at that point, is near the
stream. But it soon petered out to nothingness. Casting about in the
woods for another drain — for anything to follow — I came on the
stream, still close to the drain and running in roughly the same
direction. It wasn't much of a stream. More a bog: but it was wet
soil, not marsh. I followed it. Soon, it became a proper stream (well,
it wasn't flowing fast, but there was water there and it was flowing),
and it was clear that I was going upstream. What happens to it lower
down I do not know. I wasn't close by the stream at all points. There
were thornbushes (have you ever fought with a whitethorn and come off
the winner?), long grasses, and other impediments. There were also
fields, in places I'd never known there were fields before. Two or
three large clearings of grass — large enough to graze a herd of
cattle in — in the middle of the woods. All uncultivated. All on my
left hand.

At one point there was a plank bridge fixed over the stream. Odd.
The middle of nowhere, in an all-but trackless wood, with the trees
slightly open so that there was undergrowth, and suddenly a plank
bridge. It wasn't a kids' set-up, either. It was firmly fixed. I
crossed it, and climbed a small hill on the right (well, my left as I
walked upstream), but saw nothing I recognised. The causeway along
which the path I know runs must have been somewhere ahead of me as I
stood on that hill looking away from the stream, but, though I looked,
I couldn't see it. There were plenty of small tracks around, but
nothing to show that they'd been made by man. I left the hill and
returned to my stream. Sluggish, that stream was. Nothing cheerful
about it, but I'd made up my mind to follow it and follow it I would.
And that resolution could have been the end of me.

Not long thereafter the ground opened up to my left again. The
stream was narrower here, with long grasses on both sides. Walking on
the right bank, I left the stream to skirt around a tree, then crossed
again. Now on both sides (as far as I could see) there were tall
reeds. I should have guessed what was going to happen, but the ground
was firm underfoot. These weren't bulrushes – they were over my head,
with dry stems that could crack, and feathery tops. Good thatching
material, actually. And someone had walked that way before me. Was it
the man we'd seen mapping that time, checking drainage patterns for
the new road which was to cut across a small corner of the woodland?
Perhaps. He'd set off along this stream. But that had been a few
months ago. Perhaps he'd been back to recheck something. The stream
was to my left. I could see it as a gap in the density of the reeds
which surrounded me in all directions. The path turned left, following
the stream, which also jinked at a sudden angle, and suddenly both
disappeared. I took a few steps. The reeds were behind me. Here was
open land, with low-lying vegetation, some tufts of the wiry reeds –
those thin dark green ones with the little brown tuft just below the
tip, which usually symbolise wet ground. And the ground was indeed a
bit soggy. I took another step and was in up to the hip. And out
again. It wasn't bog. I was standing on the bog. That had been water.
My stream hadn't disappeared. It was flowing through the bog, with its
surface at the same level, with floating vegetation concealing its
existence. And it was bottomless. Scary, but at least I'd been able to
pull my leg out again effortlessly. And my other foot, though it was
on soggy ground very near to that all but invisible stream, hadn't
sunk at all.

Alright, I'd been careless. And I'd underestimated the danger and
the difficulty of this bog. By the time I had realised what I was
dealing with, I didn't want to go back the way I'd come. It was too
far, and would require hitting the high reeds at exactly the right
spot. Could I do it? What would happen if I didn't? The actual lake
itself is up there somewhere. All I could see in that direction was
high reeds, with a thin line of trees beyond them and the main road
beyond that. That bog was big. And I've never walked on ground like
it. I'm well used to cut and drained bogs, where the peat is cut for
fuel and laid out to dry. And I'm used to mountain bogs, where you
can, if you're used to it, judge the ground and pick a way across. The
small reeds, though they signal boggy ground, are themselves fairly
firm, and you can usually rely on a clump of them to take your weight.
Higher in the mountains they don't grow, but the worst penalty you're
likely to suffer is a wet foot. But here, in this vast bog, the whole
clump would sink if you put weight on it. And, I thought, if the
surface breaks I'm going to go down into this bog and never be seen
again. The surface wasn't breaking. When I put my foot down, the
ground underneath would dip by a couple of inches, and the whole
surface of the bog would pucker.

I phoned my father and told him where I was. Perhaps that was a bad
move. I presented it as: I've been longer on this stroll than I said I
would be, so I'm ringing to say that I'm turning back now, and by the
way, I'm in the middle of a nasty bog on the far side of the lake. But
still, it worried him. I wouldn't usually phone unless something had
gone wrong. By that time I'd picked out a route. There was a tongue of
woodland reaching toward me, with good broadleaf trees that must be
growing on dry ground. It wasn't a long walk, so I headed for it. I
fell in the stream once more on my way, with similarly undramatic
results. Odd that the bog so near this water can be no more unstable
than the bog in other places.

There seemed to be some kind of path. Certainly the bog was firmer
than it had been. But I couldn't reach the woods. There was a very
clear dividing line between bog and woods, with the woodland about
half a foot higher. But the bog just this side of the line was clearly
horrible. Probably no more sodden than the rest of it, but with no
vegetation to tie it together. It was just a strip of oozing
blackness. I wasn't walking on that. It simply would not have held

I must admit that I felt a positive revulsion. And, for the first
time, real fear that I wouldn't get out. The realisation that I was
dealing with something beyond what I normally encountered, with
something that presented a real danger with which I was not well
equipped to cope, had come slowly. There was no point of terror as I
stood in the middle of the bog. It was when I saw I couldn't get off
the edge that that struck.

There was, though, a small patch of the high, dry-stemmed reeds
forming an island in the bog. I stood there and considered my options.
Where I was, I was fine. The ground below me was holding firm. Behind
me and to both sides was bog, where I could walk but would have to
keep moving, and where there might be any number of traps including
that invisible stream. Ahead was the dry woodland, but bordering it
was a strip too wide for me to jump. I did, for a brief spell,
consider jumping as far as I could, which would sink me probably to
half way up my torso, but which would leave me within reach of a clump
of grass which I could use to drag myself out again. Perhaps. If it
was strong enough to hold my weight. If I didn't sink entirely.

I was, if you like, in a bay of the bog, with another peninsula of
woodland sticking out behind me. I thought about that for a while, but
I didn't like the look of it. They were scrubbier trees, and probably
were not clearly differentiated from the bog. And besides, the stream
ran through that peninsula. And I was not feeling very well disposed
toward that stream.

And then I saw it. A fallen tree, a little to my left, stretching
over the black section into the vegetated area, the area I could walk
on. My salvation. I was just setting off when daddy phoned me. He'd
been trying to get through for a while, but my phone had been set to
vibrate and I hadn't felt it. That must have been worrying. Sorry,
daddy. I told him that I'd seen my way out along a fallen tree. He
told me to contact him again if I had any trouble. So I set off.

It was bushy, and the higher branches were still alive. And I got
out without difficulty.

And I didn't have a clue where I was.

A little casting about brought me to the top of the same hill I'd
hit earlier. I could have gone down to the plank bridge and followed
the stream home. But it was a difficult route. Trying to find a path
under and around scrubby trees and long grass. I could follow the
stream for a bit, then leave it and trust to my sense of direction and
the fact that I'd be heading into the country between the hill and the
boathouse – country I'd scouted before. But it's a bit boggy there
too. And it was also the country were my sense of direction and
mammy's had been completely out of kilt.

I decided, instead, to trust my sense of direction to bring me
straight through the woods from where I was now. And I couldn't go too
far wrong. The stream was to my left, and the causeway to my right.
Either would bring me home. But I wouldn't head straight for the
causeway: I didn't know what shape that bog was, and I had no desire
to meet it again. Besides, it would be nicer to keep to the paths,
such as they were.

So I headed down between two incongruous box bushes (there are some
in the woods on the other side, remnants of hedges in the depths of
the woods; there's a laurel walk there two, which has gone rather
wild) and came out in another of those clearings. Long grass, enough
to graze a bull. And, on the far side, a structure. It was built of
chipboard: four walls, and no roof, just standing, leaning out on the
rounded timbers – pine trunks – which held them up. Over the pine
trunks was stuffed bracken, presumably in some effort at disguise,
though it was all now dead. Very strange. It was not in any sense well
built, but a fair amount of work had gone into it. And how by all
that's reasonable had they managed to transport four eight by four
sheets of chip there?

A shallow drain and a single line of trees separated that field
from the next. These fields are surely man-made, but why? Why a small
clearing in the middle of a wood?

And why was the first field full of knee-high grass and the second
of shoulder-high bracken? There was a track through it, leading away
from the structure. Someone had walked that way, crushing the bracken,
fairly recently. Within the week, at least. But they'd gone only
half-way and turned back. I forced my way through and got back into
the woods. Ahead was another clearing. When I got a bit closer I could
see that it was full of small stakes. Ah! A planting. And where
there's a planting there's a track. There wasn't. Not leading into it,
anyway. But, only a couple of yards away, there was the causeway. I
was up it and on my grateful way home before I'd consciously thought
about it. A little way along I saw to my right an explanation for the
distant noise of machinery which had been troubling me the entire
time. The forestry down there to my right was being cleared. No real
surprise there. That's what it was planted for. I didn't stop to check
whether the tumbledown treehouse was still there, sitting in an oak
just this side of the small drain which divides the forestry from the

This is probably five times longer than I thought it would be, so
I'll stop now. I think today's events curbed my taste for exploration
for a while. I'll stick to known paths for a spell.

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