How many forests do you know that have a name? Off the top of my head I can only list a few: Sherwood Forest, the Great North Woods, Amazon Rainforest, and Mirkwood -- all mysterious and magical places (and in the case of the last one, imaginary). But I have a feeling many people are like me, whose local forest growing up was simply a nameless woods just beyond the backyard fence. Nothing too special, other than the rare deer or brightly colored bird that happened to wander in from its darker corners.
Give those woods a name though, and everything changes. It becomes a place of old stories, ancient mysteries, and hidden portals to unknown places.
I thought about this while watching the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race on the Versus Channel, as the riders passed through the Arenberg Forest. I couldn't get the beautiful image out of my mind of all those colorful cyclists and fans surrounded by the dark green shadows of that old forest.
A few weeks later, I was in North Carolina visiting with my parents, and one night my mother brought a tin of watercolor pastels to the kitchen table, saying: "I'm not sure where I got these, but I've had them for a long time and never used them. So you can take them, if you'd like."
Thanks, Mom. That set of 40 Caran d'Ache pastels was just the inspiration I needed to put that Paris-Roubaix image down on paper:
The road through the Arenberg Forest is actually a narrow path of cobblestones, for which the race is famous. There were 27 "secteurs" of cobbles on the 2010 course ... the condition of which are mostly bad, some worse-than-bad, and some absolutely horrendous. The Arenberg Forest cobbles are in the absolutely horrendous category -- which is why they're so wonderful (for the fans ... not so much for the cyclists!). The fact that it runs through an old forest elevates this beloved cobbled secteur to mythic status.
So the next time I cycle through an anonymous forest, I'm going to try to learn more about it and assign it a name. Given a name, a forest takes shape, defines its inner character, and finds a voice to tell its stories.