Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Luke Turner

Luke Turner | 30th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Luke Turner:

During the afternoon of 15th July 2018 a huge fire broke out in the open plains of Wanstead Flats at the southern end of Epping Forest. On Twitter I watched flames lick away dry grass, gorse and scrub. I thought about going to have a look, but in the midst of the heatwave and unease over climate change it felt as if I would have been rubbernecking on a growing tragedy that envelops the world. A week later I considered taking the 56 bus to the Flats to find a tree that I’d seen photographed on Instagram, a vivid green amid the the scorched cracked earth. Again, I made excuses to myself and didn’t go. I barely went to the forest in the long hot months in the middle of the year. I have always found the summer to be the forest’s most unwelcoming season. The birds are silent, exhausted by territorial struggles and mating and nesting, and the absence of their song merely renders the thick humid air beneath the closed tree canopy all the more oppressive.

It’s been a time of exhaustion, and not merely from the environmental and political crises that have thudded dully into our eyes via social media, without respite, for the past 12 months. On a personal level, finishing my book Out of the Woods was such a draining experience that I was not sure how easily I might return to the Epping Forest that shaped it.

Tomorrow I am 40-years-old. In less than two months Out of the Woods will be published. The four decades of my life will no longer be my narrative, my secrets, my private journey from the late 1970s until this epoch of heat and turmoil and anxiety and fire and doom. I know that when to finish writing it I sat disappearing into myself in the middle of a Cornish woodland for 14 solitary days, I summoned ghosts and demons, and struggled to lock them away again.

I have carried a proof copy of the book with me for the months since it first came back from the printers. I’ve not entirely been able to fathom why, for I’ve kept it hidden in an inside pocket of my jacket, rarely taking it out to show others, never wanting to read it myself. In some ways I am fearful of what lies within its pages. My own words have felt like a spark that might unleash a bitter conflagration within my own mind. To process that, to understand that strangers will soon know the depths to which I have sunk and the places to which I have been, those moments of sour lust and broken intimacy, has been enough to cause nights of sleepless panic and days of awareness that I have created a new reality for myself. The book, hidden in that pocket, has curved to the shape of my ribs, and something that is so much about the wrong that has been done to my body by myself and others is now a snug fit with it.

But in the weeks of early autumn, this started to change. On the Instagram location tag for Epping Forest I saw the green start to wash from the leaves in pictures and coats appear on dogs and their walkers. On a Sunday morning, I took the train to Chingford Plain for my first trip out with the Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers in quite some time. We worked behind a screen of blackthorn (to be left for nesting birds) around the northern corner of the plain, cutting down knobbled beech saplings and the omnipresent holly, piling the branches on a fire that hungrily shouted its way through wood and cackled up leaves, smoke pouring across the clearing. As we cleared more trees, so more shafts of sunlight cut through the haze. We are not there just to slash and burn, of course, but to try and bring at least some of the landscape back to the habitat of open woodland that was lost in the years since management of Epping Forest ended. Most of the pollards that characterised that landscape are old now, overburdened by uncut poles that threaten to split trunks and open them disease. For years, few new pollards were cut in the forest, but now it’s part of our conservation work. An urge took hold of me that day, and I knew that I wanted or had to or must make one myself.

I took the special long-handled lopping saw from its resting place against a veteran oak, and walked through the smoky clearing to where a beech, stronger than the rest of the feeble crooked saplings and perhaps ten-years-old, had been left in a halo of new light. I raised the metal pole with the blade at its end, and began to saw the trunk at an angle, above deer nibbling height. The blade creaked and the teeth jammed and rasped but finally the top of the tree feel to the soil, leaving only the trunk, now a pollard bole, a sculptural pillar in the new clearing. To cut trees down and restore an old clearing is futile, for the woodland will return. But creating a pollard will, so long as it is cut regularly, prolong the life of a tree for many centuries.

Now, when I lie in bed and the anxieties of the year, the stresses of work and money and the knowledge that soon my past will no longer be private push away sleep, I let my mind float up towards the forest and imagine the tree that I mutilated to prolong its life until far beyond my own death, and the time when my words and our modern chaos are trivial sparks of the past, and forgotten.


Luke’s book Out of the Woods is published on 24 January by Orion Books, and is available to preorder here via our shop. It will be launched at the London Review Bookshop on 18 January, when Luke will appear in conversation with Olivia Laing.

Luke will also read from Out of the Woods, accompanied by a site-specific soundtrack from Spaceship Mark, at our Caught by the River Calder event in Hebden Bridge on 30 March. More info and tickets here.