WE ARE into the darkest time of the year and the dreich weather seems to be making the landscape look extra dour.

It’s dark so early at this time that there is no daylight after teatime for us to enjoy our walks in a wood or by the sea, which is our tradition. Instead, we often do a night tour of the streets looking at the Christmas lights so many people have made the effort to display.

Weekends have become our time to explore the woods and on Saturday the weather allowed us to venture out, after a few days of rain. We knew it would be muddy, and the trees bare of leaves, but we were on the hunt for holly and ivy to make our Christmas wreath and decorate the house.

It’s only when you venture into a wood in winter time that you fully appreciate the display of green that holly and ivy provides. They are nature’s Christmas lights of colour, a gift of green in a sleeping wood that has lost most of its colour.

I have written before about the mental health benefits of “forest bathing”, and for me regular visits to nature and walking amongst trees have always been a vital part of my mental wellbeing. And so as we ventured forth to a wood in East Lothian after days of being cooped up inside, I could feel my spirit lift.

We arrived as the sun was already lowering in the winter sky. We had just two hours for our adventure and so we headed down into the wood.

The sound of the Sauchet Water, which runs through the wood, reached us before we could see it. The rain of previous days had turned it into a tumbling river. I had hoped for this, as the sound of running water in nature’s setting is so therapeutic. The kids stood by the bank, watching and listening to the river as it flowed past them, mesmerised by the sight and sound of it. I watched them as they stood together, saying nothing, but sharing the moment.

After a few minutes, they came out of their trance and headed deeper into the wood to seek adventure. Our task was to find nice branches of holly and some ivy, but also to seek out the stories of the wood.

And they found a story. A tree was in danger of falling because the river had eroded the bank. One side of its root system was exposed, with nothing to hold on to, so the tree was leaning towards the water, in danger of falling. But a neighbouring tree looked as if it had come to the rescue. Its trunk was bending towards the tree in danger, giving it something to lean on.

The kids called them the ‘slipping tree’ and the ‘helping tree’. And when we looked at the roots of the two trees, we could see that they were, as my son described it, “holding hands”. I could see what he meant, for the roots of the ‘slipping tree’ looked as if they were indeed holding onto the roots of the ‘helping tree’.

Perhaps this was all their creative imagination, although there is clear scientific evidence that trees in a wood need each other and help each other in many different ways, especially via their underground root system. And if you really look at trees, you will see the stories of their challenges, and of their resilience and survival in the face of them.

The kids moved on in their adventure, but I paused for a moment at these two trees. There was a story here that spoke to me so directly in this most challenging of times: that we need to hold hands like this sometimes, by seeking and accepting the help of others if we feel ourselves slipping. But also, we need to be able to recognise when someone else is quietly slipping and help them hold on.

“Come on, dad, we have found a perfect holly bush,” the kids called out. My wife Kate and I scrambled up the muddy slope to see, and sure enough they had.

There is understandably a wealth of folklore and tradition about holly. It’s said to be bad luck to cut the tree down but taking a small branch is OK, as long as you thank the tree.

By this time, darkness was falling and the wood was feeling eerie, but in a good way. Part of exploring nature should be the enchantment of it, the mysteries it holds, and it being a bit scary at times is part of this.

The bare branches of the trees silhouetted against a darkening sky was the perfect theatre to end our adventure, as the kids kept an eye out for faeries and malevolent magical creatures, which they knew would be kept at bay as long as they held onto their holly branches.

We emerged from the wood into the dying light of the winter’s day, decorated with holly and ivy like figures from mythology ourselves.

Such was our adventure last weekend. I felt so much better after the walk. Yes, it was the physical exercise and fresh air, but it was also the spiritual uplift a visit to the woods always gives, even in winter.

And part of this, if we choose to notice and listen, will be nature’s stories, which can speak directly to us.