Every day, I take a morning walk on a tiny swatch of ancient woodland near my house. On first glance, it’s a thin scrap of unkempt wilderness separated from the rest of Tooting Common by a busy main road. Unlike the rest of the common with its wide grassy spaces and street-lit tarmac paths, this bit has been left more to its own devices, with just a few well-worn dirt paths created by users over centuries.
But, as unremarkable as it first appears, look more closely and it becomes a treasure trove. As you step off the road into the common, the earth becomes springy underfoot. Inside, you find hawthorn trees with craggy brown trunks, remnants of ancient hedgerows. Matronly horse chestnuts with their leaves like big green bloomers. Mature oaks create a canopy of twisting branches. The woodland is filled with improbable amounts of bird song. Every day I’m accompanied by bold robins, but I also glimpse great- and long-tailed tits, and timid blackbirds hopping along the woodland floor. Occassionally, the rustle of one of London’s many rats crashes through the thick undergrowth.
I have walked here many times, but never so often as I have since quarantine began. Now, I walk here most days. These daily walks have become a sacred time, and the woodland’s boughs a natural cathedral.
And I am not the only person making greater use of their local natural spaces. In these days of quarantine, the place has never been busier. But, because of the social distancing rules, if you glimpse a human animal amidst the green, you avoid it as would a shy wood mouse on the trampling approach of an dog off its leash.
While I generally like to be alone with the wood, I respect anyone who comes to worship here, and acknowledge their right to the space as equal to mine- that is, the right to come, be reverent and leave no trace.
I don’t know whether closer attention to this little patch of woodland has allowed it to reveal more of its secrets to me, or whether closer attention has revealed the quiet and mysterious wonder of the everyday. Probably a little of both. But I’m deeply grateful for the reminder that the power of god’s earth to inspire awe can be found in sunlight falling on the smallest tender new leaf just as easily as it can be found from atop a mountain.
Where’s your church, your sacred place? Share it in the comments.