Every Monday I drive down to the Forest of Dean to run Open Theatre sessions at the Heart of the Forest Community Special School. Relieved to get a chance to get out of the city, I use my break to go on a walk through the forest.
It’s gorgeous and calm – the leaves are starting to turn colour – and the perfect moment for some quiet contemplation. Wandering along the path, I stuff my pockets with chestnuts. I look forward to eating some later today, perhaps roast them in the oven. I know to search for the prickly green ones and to disregard the chestnuts covered in shorter spikes. And I wonder how I know how to do this? I can picture it vividly: going on autumn walks with my family and picking up beach nuts and hazelnuts and chestnuts.
I can remember the smell of the forest, the sight of my mother, the rustling of the leaves under my boots, but not the words. No matter how hard I try I can’t remember the words she used to explain to me which nuts you can eat. I think about all those other things I learned as a child; not to touch a wall socket, to feel confident in the sea, to eat a Dutch herring covered in onions by holding it upside down. I can remember the intensity of her voice, the laughter in the water, the horrible taste, but never the words that must have accompanied our actions. Learning by observing, all senses occupied. Humans have done it for ages. Most animals still do it.
We often feel the need to equip our young people with as much understanding of language as possible. After all, words are everywhere in our modern society. But in every day life do we need them as much as we think? And do we need to impose them on people who have little to no use for them? I spend my days in school learning and communicating and laughing and understanding without using a single one. I feel calm being surrounded by the trees (they, after all, don’t care about my language, my thoughts, even me being there, but give plenty back). I can sense a similar calm in a young person that isn’t asked to communicate in a way that doesn’t come natural. The intense smile when I understand exactly what they want to do without having to say it out loud. The locking of our eyes when we dance together.
As I continue my walk I think about the sessions here and how much I like them. The students are so funny and welcoming. They are also very social; in every group there will be a student making sure everyone takes part. Like in any new school it can take a bit of time for staff to get acquainted with our work. The first weeks I may have used words to explain how or what I’m doing. I probably spoke out loud to ask the group to be quiet (how ironic). But as the weeks pass, and the leaves in the forest grow darker, we all stopped talking and the sessions became more intuitive.
I hope it’s going to be a quiet winter.
Written by Marlien van Liempt