Caught by the River

Notes From Epping Forest: December

Luke Turner | 27th January 2017

Words and pictures: Luke Turner

I spent much of last year thinking about men and forests. Not just the one man who, naked body as dark as the trees on the far side of the lake that made his skin shine with pure German water, tempted me under the tall beeches of Berlin’s Grunewald. Not merely my ancestors, whose unmarked graves in Epping Forest I have visited so many times. Not the emails that I realised were not sent by the man who had written the guidebook to the ancient timbers of Greensted Church, but by his wife, who still uses his address three years after he died. I’ve not just thought of William D’Oyley, the surveyor whose maps were the core of the legal battle that saved Epping Forest, before he became its first superintendent and it ended up destroying him. Some of the thoughts have been of the ghostly apparition of a man who on one solitary twilight walk, I swear I saw about to place his head into a noose on the edge of the Green Ride, somewhere near Loughton.

Compared to the men of the Forests, it’s the women who often seem most at home in them. There’s the artist Cosey Fanni Tutti in her 70s porn shoots in the back of a Ford Cortina, trees framing the action. There’s the female Keeper who runs rings around her gruff sarn’t major colleagues as she tries to educate local kids about the unsentimental, brutal joys of nature. Or the wicca I know, whose all-female coven has conducted many rituals in the forest. This is all striking, given the privilege that I as a man have to walk without fear, whether imagined or not, alone in the woods. It’s men who have been at the heart of the most complicated aspects of the relationship between forests and their inverse: civilisation’s greatest invention, the city.

In this year of tectonic political shifts, we can see this discord becoming ever more pronounced. Donald Trump has nominated a slew of grim white men, many with impeccable anti-environmental credentials, to his first administration. We have it here, where Nigel Farage has whipped up a supposed divide between urban and rural with his talk of ‘metropolitan elites’, where “DFL” for “down from London” is now delivered with ever more of a sneer. So many of the green places I’ve walked this year have, thanks to Brexit, become part of an England populated by people I don’t understand – more foreign than those from a geographical abroad who have made London their home. There’s no doubt I am part of this troubling divide too – yet it’s hard not to be disdainful of provincial Brexiteers when, in the first rural Gloucestershire pub I visited over the Christmas break, it was impossible not to overhear a group of local men, pints grasped in pink fingers, going on about “fuzzy wuzzies” and how “Churchill wouldn’t have apologised for the fucken’ Empire”. It’s all happening in Europe too. In Poland, the misogynist Catholics of the Law & Justice Party have attacked women’s rights of control over their own bodies just as they’ve approved commercial logging in the Białowieża Forest, the continent’s last remaining primeval woodland.

It was Poland where I hoped to find The Tree Man of Krakow. This October I visited the city for the Unsound music festival, a week of talks, panels and weird music played from the afternoon until the small hours. I used the trip to explore the Wolski Forest, an area of woodland that, like Epping, lies just on the city margins. It is home to two monumental mounds to Polish national heroes, and during the war was where the resistance plotted an uprising. It was also where many of them were executed by the Nazis. I wanted to find the Tree Man of Krakow, to be spun by him, to find out where he came from. I learned of Tree Man from Leyland Kirby, a Stockport giant of a musician with vast curly hair who now lives in Krakow, drinking Jameson’s and taking on the locals at darts in knackered old bars.

Kirby has an immense capacity for mischief, so I wasn’t entirely sure whether Tree Man actually existed, though he insisted otherwise. “I first ran into him late one night on my way home from darts,” Kirby told me. “Now I was already MC Hammered by that point. He was with a group of people and beckoned me over from afar. At first I noted nothing amiss until I got closer and saw all these branches over and around his head. He then proceeded to pick me up and spin me round as if I was a rag doll for at least 40 seconds. My protestations held no court in the world of Tree Man”.

That happened five months ago. Since then, Kirby’s found out from a barmaid at a 24 hour boozer that during the day Tree Man works as a dentist, but has never explained to anyone why he goes out with his head covered in foliage in search of strangers to spin.

He struck me as being rather like the man that I know who lives in Epping Forest. They are both seen by regular society as odd, but in reality, just do their thing and get on with life under the trees – or in Tree Man’s case, bits of them. There is clearly something about wooded areas that attracts men who are otherwise broken, who have taken the litter of their minds under the leaves and, unlike me or many others of our gender, have been able to dispose of it. It’s as if, by abandoning man’s instinct to destroy and conquer nature, they have been allowed by her to escape masculine convention and expectation…to be free.

Now it’s January 2017, almost two years to the day since I met the man who lives in Epping Forest, whose name I can’t tell you because he doesn’t want to be found. I don’t want to take away his Epping Forest, a place he could hardly have expected to see again on that morning a few years ago when he’d tried to kill himself. Unable to do so, he had left his home and started walking, thinking that if he stopped taking his medication he would eventually be able to do himself in. It didn’t happen. Instead, he believes the forest has cured his bipolar disorder, and has ended up living in a small camp made from abandoned tents in a remote part of the forest. His life, funded by a military pension that gives him a far greater disposable income than most people I know down in London, has become content, a routine of wandering to buy a coffee from the machine at Costa, eating olives and manuka honey, reading up on eastern spirituality, and talking to the deer and foxes. There’s been the occasional brush with the law, particularly for his habit of nude sunbathing on a meadow above the M25, but he has plenty of fans – at least among the local women. The men of south west Essex are less keen, especially the golfers who removed a bench to stop him sitting on it to rest his arthritic legs. I often suspect that this is because they envy his freedom compared to their commutes to the city, the washing of the Range Rover, the school fees and the red golf blazers so hard to button up over a ready meal paunch.

When I’ve been walking through the forest with a clouded mind, unable to take any sense of relief or pleasure from the surroundings, I think of the Tree Man of Krakow and my man who lives in a bush in the Epping Thicks and wonder where they are, and if I might tap into what sustains them. A Facebook message arrived from Leyland Kirby in Krakow, with a picture. Tree Man wasn’t how I expected at all. This was no wispy sylph of the forest. He was clearly stood on a table or a chair in a bar painted magnolia, lit from below by the luminous green of a fruit machine or jukebox. Under a bald skull his round face glistened, as if he’d been rubbing it with something similar to the pork lard I’d accidentally ordered 450 grammes of as a starter in a local Polish restaurant. On his head were green leaves and branches, manically attached, exploding in all directions. The verdant disorder was in sharp contrast to his own gaze, through small dark eyes, fixed like his rigid smile on who knows what.

Late in December a Christmas card arrived from my aunty and uncle. Their house is by the Forest at the end of the Central Line, and they had introduced me to the man who lives in it. The card simply reads “PS – he’s gone into sheltered accommodation for the winter.” My heart sank. On one level – society’s level – this is what we’re supposed to do when we’re men and old, and is probably the right thing to happen. But I thought of how he always seemed keen, as he would tell me, to eventually become a “forest spirit”. I imagined that clean sheets and corridors with the cabbagy smell of the institutionalised old must, compared to his forest camp, feel like a prison. I remembered what he told me in July, when I’d sat with him and asked for advice on how I might try and lift the crippling bleakness I’d been feeling, and he said that perhaps I should come and move up to the forest and camp with him. Has he always been happy there, I asked? “Oh yeah, more than happy, I don’t do bloody recession, bloody manic depression any more, like I haven’t been since I been in the forest. It’s been the happiest three years of my life, the best three years. I’ve met more friends, the situation’s just lovely apart from the golf course having a go at me. I just told them to fuck off you know. I tell you what do you know what it’s been splendid splendid splendid.” As I walked back along the village green to take the tube home I realised that I was not as brave a man as he.


Luke Turner is co-founder and editor of online music and arts magazine The Quietus. He has also contributed to Q, The Guardian, NME, MOJO and the BBC and is currently researching a book on Epping Forest.

See the previous Notes From Epping Forest posts here

Luke Turner on Caught by the River/on Twitter