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If you go down to the woods today: Luke Turner and Kirsteen McNish on why they're celebrating Epping Forest through the arts

Image credit: Epping Forest, photograph by Kirsteen McNish

Epping Forest has many identities. Rural idyll, city escape, political battlefield, rave site and cruising ground. Now, thanks to author and co-founder of online music magazine The Quietus Luke Turner, and arts and events curator Kirsteen McNish, it’s the setting and inspiration for The People’s Forest, a year-long programme of arts events as part of Walthamstow Borough of Culture. With poets-in-residence, all night radio broadcasts, walks, gigs, performances and more, the project, curated in response to the evolving seasons, promises to celebrate the integral role the forest has played in the life of London’s diverse communities.
In January, Turner published Out of the Woods, a moving memoir about his life-long relationship with Epping Forest. In the wake of a difficult break-up, and as he comes to terms with his evolving sexuality, Turner’s book explores the social and cultural history of the woodland at the edge of the city, and whether it’s possible to find peace in the grey areas of life. Meanwhile McNish’s creative relationship with the forest developed through her work with Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery, where she co-curated the WMG Lates events.
Turner and McNish tell us more about The People’s Forest, and why Epping Forest matters.
Amber Massie-Blomfield: What should we expect from The People's Forest? What are some of your highlights?

Luke Turner: Our aim was to present the Forest in a new way that looked beyond just seeing it as a place of respite and recreation. Epping Forest was saved for the people of East London in 1878 but they’ve been getting up to all sorts within it ever since in a history that’s as bizarre and wonderful as that as the city itself. There’s far more to the place than dog walking and wind in the leaves, and we wanted to celebrate that.

All are created equal in the programme but I’m especially looking forward to Matana Roberts’ new work in response to the Forest and the writing of Ursula K Le Guin; what The Willowherb Review’s resident poets come up with, Gazelle Twin and Helm’s gig, and sitting in the Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge broadcasting music and speech submitted by the people of London across London for the Dark Outside over the Summer Solstice. And, well, everything really - we’ve already had a great taster in Will Burns’ first poem written as part of his residency - you can read that at Caught By The River.

Kirsteen McNish: We looked at the programme from a seasonal perspective and wanted to reflect the forest in its multitude of ways. We have lots of artists / writers involved who live locally and grew up in the borough as well as some who have ongoing deep relationships with forests in the UK.

I’m especially looking forward to the events that get you into the forest like the Lone Women in The Woods nightwalk with artists, walkers and writers Clare Archibald, Louisa Thomsen Brits, Carole Wright and Epping forest expert Alison Mitchell. It’s a unique opportunity to experience the forest from twilight to darkness. We would like to reach women who otherwise might not venture into the woods for this kind of experience. There is going to be an installation by artist Una Hamilton Helles starting on Halloween night marrying ecology with voices of the forest and a black metal soundscape amongst other things! We also have an event at the Walthamstow Trades Hall with writers Sara Maitland, Will Ashon, forest expert Dr. Amy Cutler and music from Alison Cotton who will play from her much lauded solo album “All Is Quiet In The Ancient Theatre”. We will have new work resulting from a call out from The Willowherb Review who are inviting people of colour to write on Epping forest (if you're interested, the deadline is 26 April 2019).
Amber: Why is Epping Forest such a special place for you both personally?

Luke: My parents grew up a few streets from the Forest in Loughton and I spent my childhood going to visit my Granny there, or my uncle and aunty in Theydon Bois. It has been the most special place I’ve known ever since I can remember, but not in a nostalgic way, much as sometimes I’ve wished it could have been. Instead it seems to have partnered my life in all its ups and downs, and going back into it after time away was always a means of tracking things lost, and found. When I wrote my book Out of the Woods it became an obsession to learn about and connect with the place, even if sometimes it was having a terrible impact on my mental health. That’s what I find so fascinating about it - this power it has over the human mind.

Kirsteen: When I first visited the forest, it struck me how easy it was to get to on public transport. My interest was partially informed by the William Morris gallery where I sometimes curate events and I read about his relationship with the place and his fight for the preservation of green spaces. I then became more immersed via writers from the borough and beyond on Epping such as David Southwell and Luke who I worked with on events at the gallery. As I visited more I realised how different it felt according to location from wide open and light filled to atmospheric and eerie with the strange wonderful shapes of the pollarded trees. It’s so close to the city and yet feels a million miles apart once you get there. I have experienced conversations when walking there that might not have happened had I been beating the paths of the city and its over stimulation and constant distractions. It’s helped me with loss and grief too. It’s become quite an addictive place.


Image credit (above): Duke in Epping Forest, photograph by Rob Baish

Image credit (above): Will Burns in Epping Forest, photograph by Kirsteen McNish
Amber: How do you think the arts can - and should - shape our relationship with the natural environment?

Kirsteen: In some ways I would argue that we have lost sight of the fact we are part of nature, and don’t exist “in relation” to it as a voyeur might. Almost all the landscape in this country has been affected by human life, from our impact on the land to some of the animals we have introduced into it. Art can open a landscape up in the imagination through narrative and spark an interest we might not otherwise have explored. We are both interlopers and also “part of it”, which it is why it can be such an awkward relationship at times. I admire writer Rebecca Solnit’s perspective: as humans we are losing the aptitude for getting lost and finding things out by accident, and so ideally art to me should open avenues to explore the environment as we become more fearful, less risk taking. I also think it’s all about stories and how the forest, in this instance, can open a great many dialogues and debates.

Luke: For too long I feel that art has 'othered' nature in two key ways, either presenting it as the sublime, distant, and grand, or conversely sentimentalising into the twee, cute, anthropomorphised, present merely as part of the wellness industry. I yearn for a more complicated engagement between art and the ‘natural’ world, one that allows all identities to flourish and their voices be heard, while at the same time exploring and emphasising and explaining the environmental crisis that we’re currently living through. Of course within that is the beauty of what surrounds us, but we need to do more than just sigh at it in blind admiration.
Amber: One strand of the programme, The Forest Anew, explores the role of activism in the forest. Tell us a bit more about that. Do you think the forest still has a radical political potential?

Luke: Absolutely. The campaign to save Epping Forest was incredible in how it worked across class boundaries, uniting the Willingale family, who lived in a Loughton slum, with aristocrats, the politicians of the Corporation of London, and the growing Victorian middle class. We could learn a lot from their efforts, especially in a time when it seems that society is fragmenting into ever more binary positions just as unity to deal with the enormity of Climate Change is needed. Additionally, given the issues we have around the rise of the far right and English nationalism, we need an urgent conversation about how we explore landscape and belonging, to prevent place being occupied by those who would wish the exclusion of others.

Kirsteen: I also think the radical part will be in the responsibility visitors take for the forest and ensuring it's preserved for generations to come. Look at young activists and naturalists like Greta Thurberg and Dara McNulty and the awareness raising they are doing with Climate Strikes and conservation work - it is both brave and radical. We need to take note and apply that energy to Epping by getting to know it and feel responsibility towards the place. Ed Webb Ingall is great at stirring up positive action so it's going to be fun working with him.
Amber: Luke, in your recent book, Out of the Woods, you reflect on the queer history of Epping Forest - something that will also be a focus of summer's Out in the Forest season. Why has the forest been such a permissive, subversive place, and how do you plan to celebrate that heritage?

Luke: Simply put, because leaves and bushes and trees are as good as walls to hide behind. Men are still persecuted by societal and religious homophobia to use Epping Forest, and other green places, to meet for sex. This is a hugely complex issue and my own feelings about it are massively ambiguous, but I cherish the way that the forest can offer this sanctuary. Out in the Forest won’t just be about sex, however - it’s more a party that brings the woodland to an industrial landscape, and a celebration of queer desire and the complexities of identity through performance and music.

Amber: You are partnering with The Willowherb Review, a journal that seeks to diversify nature writing, to find writers of colour to respond to the forest landscape. What issues do you see around the lack of diversity in nature writing, and why is it important they are addressed?

Luke: Obviously I am a white male who has just written a book that has a lot of nature in it, and I have read a lot of books with nature in them, usually by white people. Even as a white male, however, I found a lot of writing about nature, or nature art, very alienating - it often felt to be relevant only to a few people who could afford to eg. buy a farm and then spend a lot of time eulogising it, and then passing their winsome wisdom down to the rest of us. I believe that the natural world and art relating to it should be for all, and that the non-urban landscapes of England don’t just belong to white Anglo Saxons, as the racists who are on the march in this country would have us believe. The population around Epping Forest is incredibly diverse, and we wanted to reflect that in the art created in response to the place. Working with Willowherb Review felt like a great way to do this, it’s a wonderful project run by people of colour and devoted to encouraging and publishing writers of colour on landscape and we’ll be hearing a lot more from them in coming years.
Amber: How might people's relationship with Epping Forest be changed by experiencing The People's Forest?

Kirsteen: I hope curating a diverse programme will introduce people to a portfolio of new writing, poetry, music and gigs, and enable them to enjoy and dig into the kaleidoscopic meanings of what forests represent to us all in both myth and imagination. It’s also about getting people over the threshold - if the forest is new to them, it’s a chance to develop their own relationship with it. It’s The Peoples Forest after all.

Luke: I hope that it might encourage them to visit more. It’s remarkable just how few people seem to go, even though it is barely 30 minutes on the train from Central London to get there. I’d hope that it might introduce them to some of the stranger, less known histories of the Forest, open up new ways of thinking about the woodland, and through them wider ‘nature’.
Amber: Lastly, what would your perfect day in Epping Forest be like?

Kirsteen: A long walk (especially in Autumn as the leaves turn) with friends, starting at Chingford station, onto the Lodge and trying to spot the buzzards, maybe up to the atmospheric Loughton Camp (allegedly where Boudica stayed). It would also involve getting off the beaten track a bit and into the trees. Followed by some food and a glass of wine at one of the many pubs on the forest fringes then jump on the train home. There is still such a lot I have to discover there. I still feel quite new to it and I go most weekends.

Luke: A morning working with the Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers to try and open up some of the old woodland pasture landscape of the forest for biodiversity. It’s the best exercise I know, and really gives you a feeling of connection with Epping Forest, even if it involves cutting some trees down. If it’s not a Sunday, when that happens, then usually a walk from Chingford via High Beach to visit my ancestors in their graves and then across to the old Iron Age ramparts of Loughton Camp and the ancient pollards of Great Monk Wood. Any day in the Forest should end in the Woodbine Inn on the far, Essex side of the Forest, one of the best pubs in the South of England. Walking back through Epping Forest after a couple of their cider testing planks is a psychedelic experience.

@kirsteenmcnish @LukeTurnerEsq
Find out more about The People’s Forest: wfculture19.co.uk/peoplesforest


Image credit: Epping Forest at dusk, photograph by Luke Turner

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