Sweet dreams axed. Illustration: Kate Hazell

Sleeping with an axe under the bed—how I tried to battle my fears in the woods

I dared not imagine the sort of desperate, protracted battle in which a splitting axe might come in useful overnight
September 18, 2018

At night, the border between the real and the unreal grows thin. Or, at least, it does for me.

If you too suffer from an overactive imagination, then you’ll know well the time that might be spent lying static in a hyperalert state, attuned to every creak of the floorboard or shadow skittering by the window.

Usually, tucked up in bed at home with a sturdy Yale lock on the door, such spectres are easy to keep at bay. The sounds of the night have grown familiar, and should I be frightened from my usual routine, I could rouse my partner or even—in a true emergency—call the police.

Knowing these options are there is usually all the security I need. But far from home, in the wild outdoors, I am confronted by my cowardice afresh. No lock. No phone signal. No reassuring voice. Sleeping alone in the woods, I come face to face with fear, and it is as if we’re meeting for the first time.

Wait, what was that?

Last winter I spent a week in a cabin in a small clearing at the foot of the Cairngorm plateau. It had just one room, which held a sleeping platform, woodburner, desk, a chest of drawers and not much else.

I went there to write, though I spent at least as much time melting snow for water and staring moodily out of the window to where low stands of juniper stood hunched under the weight of the drifts. The air was still, the skinny birch afrizz with twigs upon which coal tits gathered to gossip and swing.

A beautiful place to be alone with my thoughts. But each night, as darkness fell—the watercolour palette of the snowscape outside shifting from rose-gold and lavender to a deep-sea blue and slate—I found myself alone instead with my fears.

Each thump of snow slipping heavy from its branch became an unknown creature, coiled to spring. Each crack as the hut’s frame contracted became a stranger shifting his weight on the doorstep. For hour after long hour I lay awake, eyes affixed upon the plyboard ceiling, ears pricked for intruders.

On night two I caved to my weaker instincts and took the axe with me to bed. Hobbling one-handed up the ladder I felt its weight in my other hand, the pendulum swing of the blade. At the top, I lifted myself on to the mattress and slid the axe carefully into the gap between mattress and roof, above my pillow.

Nothing to fear but fear itself

To what end? I dared not imagine the sort of desperate, protracted battle in which a splitting axe might come in useful overnight. But the suggestion of it suffused the cabin anyway, and disturbed me far more than any rustling in the undergrowth outside. I had brought up the axe for comfort, as a sort of totem of safety; instead it had carried with it the promise of violence, of anarchy.

Does arming ourselves make us feel safer, or more at risk? It depends upon the nature of the fear. Should your anxiety be well founded—if you are a soldier in hostile territory, perhaps, or camping in grizzly bear country—then your fears may be rational, and a weapon a necessary precaution (although, nota bene, bear spray is a better defence from grizzlies than a gun).

But for the majority of us, our fears are irrational and unfounded. It is an evolutionary hangover; a primal response, hardwired into us, which comes into play at night, when we are most vulnerable to danger. It certainly doesn’t help to read scary novels before bed—sending your senses into high alert. Better to direct your attentions to the finer qualities of the night sky: the Milky Way’s pearlescent sweep, the constellations densely packed.

It’s a lesson with broader applications. Next time you find yourself heading into the woods—metaphorical or otherwise—learn from my mistakes. When a twig snaps nearby, think: what am I frightened of, really? Learn to look fear full in the face, and more often than not you’ll find it formless and faint.

And if you can’t manage that, then don’t worry. By night three you’ll be too tired to care.