The People’s Forest — a literary strand to Waltham Forest’s programme as the first ever London Borough of Culture this year — has recently been announced, which is to be curated by arts consultant and events curator Kirsteen McNish, and Luke Turner, co-founder of the website The Quietus and writer of Out of the Woods. Through a series of events, talks, gigs and various other artistic collaborations over the coming year, the project aims to celebrate the relationship between the borough and Epping Forest.
As one of the first major commissions for the project, the widely acclaimed poet Will Burns (Faber New Poets, Caught By The River) will walk from Wendover Woods to Epping Forest in order to draw upon the journey as an influence for a new series of poems that are set to be released throughout the year across a number of different publications.
The People’s Forest is also working in collaboration with The Willowherb Review, a journal launched in 2018 as a platform in the move against a lack of diversity in nature writing by promoting emerging and established writers of colour. As part of the project, The Willowherb Review have launched a nature writing competition to gain one of four writer-in-residence placements. The editor of the journal, Jessica J Lee, commented on the collaboration, “in our first issue we saw a lot of writers focus on urban nature. So new writing inspired by Epping Forest is a perfect fit for us.” The Willowherb Review are currently accepting submissions for this, with April 26th being the current deadline.
With what sounds like a fascinating year ahead for the programme, we spoke to co-curator Luke Turner to find out more about what to expect from The People’s Forest this year.
Hi Luke! In your book Out of the Woods you explore the idea of the forest on a much deeper level than simply as a place to go at the weekend to escape the pressures of city life, which as you say in the book, is often how the image of the forest is presented to us. When did you begin writing about the Epping Forest, and what does it mean to you?
I started writing about the forest around five years ago, when I had the idea to write a social history of the landscape and the lives that shaped it. Looking back now it’s hard to know when that evolved out of my relationship with Epping Forest, one that extends right back into my earliest memories thanks to visiting my granny and other relatives around its margins. I hadn’t actually thought of this before but perhaps the wider point I make in Out Of The Woods — that we ought not turn our back on how our fears, neuroses and sense of human self are inextricably linked to our relationship with the woodlands — is connected to how I started to realise my life was oddly bound up with Epping Forest. It means everything to me, occasionally nothing, and sometimes somewhere in between. That’s what I find so fascinating about Epping, and other forests, they’re places in constant flux, despite the age of the trees. It forces us to really delve within and question who we are as individuals and a collective humanity in response to that challenge.
I had never really known about the history of radicalism in the area before going to one of Kirsteen’s events a few years ago at the William Morris Gallery. In recent years it feels like there have been a lot more writers engaging in the history of woodland areas — with particular reference to the work of Joe Dunthorne among other novelists, as well as to Caught By The River of course. What is it that keeps taking us back to the forest?
I keep seeing people pronouncing nature writing and writing about place ‘dead’ or ‘over’, which seems farcical to me — in a time of climate crisis and ecological collapse it’s absolutely imperative that we have more writing that engages with the natural world, or what ‘nature’ actually means. During the course of my research for Out of the Woods I realised that most of our founding myths, from civilisations to cities and religions, come from the tension between humans and forested areas. It’s inevitable then that they’re going to continue to shape our narratives when it comes to the written word. I think this is changing, too, in terms of how the natural world is approached in art. I felt that the relationship between mental health wasn’t addressed outside the Nature Cure Forest Bathing ahhhhhh paradigm, and I especially didn’t see sexuality represented, which struck me as very odd given that the natural world is all about sex and death.
The Willowherb Review sounds like a fascinating edition to this literary tradition. Can you tell me about more about how you came across them, and how you will be working with them as part of the programme?
This follows on to the previous question really. While I believe that ‘nature writing’ isn’t ‘over’ or whatever, we certainly need to have a greater range of voices to read and listen to. It’s fair accusation to say that the genre is pretty much dominated by white men and women and that could do with changing. People’s Forest co-curator Kirsteen and I had been following Jessica Lee on Twitter and when she announced the launch of the Willowherb Review, a publication devoted to nature writing by people of colour, we knew we wanted to get them on board. The urban area around Epping Forest is ethnically and culturally very diverse, and working with Willowherb to find writers to respond to the forest landscape seemed to be a really great way of celebrating that.
I love the idea of Will Burns walking from the Wendover Woods to Epping Forest to write poems about the forest, it reminds me of Iain Sinclair, or to go back much further, Ben Jonson walking to Scotland in the 17th century. Will you be working with other writers and artists in similar ways throughout the year?
I’m not sure if anyone else involved will be doing walks quite on the level of Will’s, but everyone involved ought to be aware that they’ll get muddy shoes.
For more on The People’s Forest, go to: https://wfculture19.co.uk/peoplesforest
To submit to The Willowherb Review: https://www.thewillowherbreview.com/submissions
For more on Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods, visit Orion.
For more on Will Burns: http://willburns.co.uk
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