Between Liverpool Street and Chingford, the heatwave had cooked the train carriage and all who rode in her to fetid ripeness. On the other side of the parting doors, the air thickened with an elegant stink. Gutsy lilies dressed in flouncy ribbon-tied bouquets languished in buckets of water just beyond the ticket barriers, insistent that their smell should greet me ahead of the sight of them. Mild heat-stroke has me tumble towards them and their wrangler at the station exit compelling me to share a feverish appreciation.
Have I arrived in Essex? Or some kind of paradise? But the florist cannot stand them, in any weather, she tells me. Their in-your-face, headache-inducing tumescence is too much, too funereal. They are the flowers of returning bodies to earth, of grief and mourning. Loud sexy death blooms are not everyone’s cup of tea, after all, and it’s just too damn hot to get excited. Here though, one of life’s grander truths, illuminated in this brief interaction: one person’s pleasant is another’s death and decay.
Onwards from Chingford Station, I had made my way to Epping Forest to visit Living Symphonies, a self-generating musical composition and ever-in-motion portrait of woodland ecosystem in real-time, created by artists Daniel Jones and James Bulley. Part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019’s year long The People’s Forest art programme, curated by Kirsteen McNish and Luke Turner, Living Symphonies transformed part of Epping Forest into a public sound art installation during the last week of July.
Semi-detached houses typical of Greater London suburbia lined the route from the station towards the forest. I faithfully followed the instructions on my phone, charting my path past a bus depot, a car dealership, an Indian restaurant, a golf course, until the blur of green in the distance confirmed I’d arrived at my destination. Along the track from Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, the breeze had picked up speed. Hip young parents with bouncy toddlers having run ahead of them smiled at me and we exchanged pleasantries before I crossed from the open grassland into the forgiving shade of Epping Forest’s canopies. And I thought of that word, one that doesn’t come to me ordinarily, one which has always seemed an off-puttingly tepid curb against enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s right, too, that it should seem odd, settling for a word so stiflingly complacent when the world appears to be burning, here, and everywhere else. Nevertheless, I caught myself thinking how pleasant it was to have escaped the hot delirium of the city.
In a quiet clearing, sounds – disembodied from their source, and seemingly not of the forest – played out from amongst the trees. Somewhere far above my head, jangly flute notes chased each other into submission, staying silent for a few beats, before repeating themselves. Percussive rasps began to notch upwards from a hollow trunk and I watched how rays of sunlight pricked through leaves glowing luminous green. A single but persistently held note cut through suspenseful strings as a flourish of delicate chimes joined in, dispersing the tension. Airborne particles of dust stream in front of me, stunned into place like prehistoric bugs preserved in amber or every cinematic scene of alien abduction by tractor beam.
I first experienced the atmospheric charm of Living Symphonies at the end of its original production in the summer of 2014, a tour in collaboration with the Forestry Commission which debuted in Thetford Forest, Suffolk, continued to Fineshade Woods in Northamptonshire, Chase Forest in Staffordshire, before closing in Kent’s Bedgebury Pinetum.
Though the sites are different, the premise is the same: a host forest and its local ecosystem acquire a unique ‘living symphony’ created by the artists in the form of an evolving orchestral composition with the installation site having been specifically selected for the diversity of interactions between species. It’s an experiment in data sonification so enchantingly immersive that it’s easy to forget that the project relies on considerable technical accuity, requiring laborious stages of production and extensive ecological surveys.
Jones/Bulley work collaboratively with teams of ecologists and volunteers on-site to harvest and examine the data from the selected location, after which musicians compose and pre-record a musical motif for each and every species or interaction present during a 24 hour period. Installed within the forest, the project simulates this complex interplay of players and activities in-situ and in real time, using specially written software to form a sonic mapping of actual interactions between species, along with the activity and conditions of the area. A network of covert, expertly-rigged speakers, hidden under moss or high up in the branches, effectively renders this behind-the-scenes endeavour all but invisible.
Five new trunk rings mark the time between my visits to the Living Symphonies of the great majestic pines of Bedgebury and the suburban sprawl of Epping Forest. In the meanwhile, the change in all our climates – ecological and political – became deafeningly undeniable.
In a quiet clearing, sounds – disembodied from their source, and seemingly not of the forest – played out from amongst the trees.
It’s the social history of this particular forest, though, which is foregrounded in this year’s iteration of Living Symphonies. This is, in part, due to its inclusion in the wider programming of The People’s Forest but largely by the way in which a notion of the forest as refuge, saviour and witness is expanded by co-curator Luke Turner’s trailblazing memoir and work of contemporary nature writing, ‘Out of the Woods’.
Published earlier in the year, the book opens with the disintegration of Turner’s longest adult relationship. After this “deep love went awry”, what lay in wait for Turner was a depressive episode that would churn up unresolved guilt and shame around his identity as a bisexual man having grown up with a Christian upbringing and family culture, compounded by the unexamined trauma of past abuse. In a desperate attempt to feel better, or to feel at all, Turner follows his compulsions to return to a place of familiar comfort and perilous transgression, Epping Forest.
By the time I came to visit Living Symphonies over the summer, therefore, my encounter was with an arboreal landscape contoured not only by the lives of its inhabitants and their past, but by Turner’s own emotional energy and herculean efforts to reconcile faith and sinfulness, intimacy and desire, roots and belonging.
As Turner explains in ‘Out of the Woods’:
“The roads through Epping Forest were historically some of the most dangerous near London, and many of Dick Turpin’s most heinous crimes were committed there. The forest’s history is stalked by the ghosts of the murdered, the suicides and dead babies dumped. But it also enticed thousands who have found it a place where a true inner self can be discreetly unleashed. I knew there were places, remote car parks and secluded thickets, where men who, like me, had struggled to reconcile their sexuality with their culture and familial expectations would meet. There was a reason why some locals called it ‘Effing Forest’.” p. 20
Far from the forest, travelling back through Liverpool Street station, I was relieved that the city had cooled. Out of the maddening heat, I was struck by how different an experience it had been to that of Bedgebury Pineatum. There was something in this variation of being alone, listening in lone contemplation in a natural space, that gilded this version with a sense of being in connection with a chorus of others, with those I could see and those I couldn’t, but also in recognition of the less determinable interstices between and politics of public and private life.
An interview I’d read a long time ago between the artists Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Joseph Kossuth for a publication to accompany the 1994 exhibition ‘Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility’ came to mind. Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a master of bringing attention to presence through a poetic language of absence, and of understanding the sophisticated critical powers at play at the level of the unspoken, unnamed or unheard. Raising the issue of how, during the Culture Wars of the 1980s and ‘90s, art criticism was the first in the categories to be removed from the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, Gonzalez-Torres observed that “the type of art criticism that did not agree with the stomach of the right-wing guardians was the kind… of art criticism that suddenly stopped talking about the inspiration produced by the ‘walk in the woods’, because it understood that it was just impossible at that point in history – that we do not live in isolation, not even the studio artist”.
Although I experienced this ‘walk in the woods’ – Epping Forest’s Living Symphonies – as a gentle reprieve from the infernal chaos of the world at large, it was anything but critically disengaged from the urgent and complicated impossibilities that we face at this point in history.
Twenty five years on, as we are seemingly driven to distraction and burnt out, there’s brutal relevance in Gonzalez-Torres’ use of an image of peaceful nature as tasteful indulgence to signal the problematics of conflicting ideological agendas and the choices involved in a tuning-out of politics.The resonance of his comment now is in the paradox that, in current times, while we do not and cannot live in isolation, relating with the purpose of understanding each other and the world around us seems to have become even more elusive in an age of digitally connected and mediated culture.
‘Out of the Woods’ will be too wild a read for some, but Turner’s writing ripples with a muscular humour as he writes of depression, death and sex – a notoriously awkward fit for nature writing – with tenderness and unflinching vulnerability. I find myself frequently nodding in agreement with Turner, especially in his recollections of how his school years played a part in his developing such deep shame around his desires. Men being led astray was the flip side of the same coin when I was at school around the same time as Turner, each of us receiving the curriculum sex education of the early 1990s that, as Turner notes, was “woeful for heterosexuals, let alone for gays, lesbians and especially those somewhere in the middle.”. Bisexual men had been cast as the specific carriers of a (homosexual) contamination to (heterosexual) women, and with that, a threat to what was (and still is by some) considered the ‘natural’ order of heteronormativity and its institutions. Where the Conservative government’s deeply regressive policy, Section 28, prohibited the teaching of anything that might be perceived to promote homosexuality, meanwhile, teenage girls (I used to be one) were advised to prioritise the goal of getting married and starting a family, with that order of events being of utmost importance. Casting my mind back to the pre-internet media of the time, there were magazines aimed at late teens and young women running feature upon feature devoted to the mantra of ‘keeping your man’, (lest women find themselves to be not single, or worse still, single mothers). On television, terrifying adverts warning of the threat of HIV and AIDS transmission played during evening primetime ad breaks, contributing towards stigma and misinformation around the virus that still lingers to this day.
nothing is so sacred or established as to be exempt from the possibility of destruction or loss
In many ways, ‘Out of the Woods’ could be the sleeve notes to the forest’s instrumental music. Billed as a ‘family-friendly’ public art installation within the wider programming of events, Epping Forest’s version of Living Symphonies occasioned a discussion of agendas and debates which put it in contrast to the more local ecological concerns of 2014. But it’s where Turner evokes the multiple identities and various personalities of Epping Forest in the book that Living Symphonies transforms into a site where the thrill and shame of desires considered unpallatable by some in their out-of-placeness, (outside of heteronormativity, outside of monogamy, outside of binary thinking, or literally outside) can somehow harmonise. Implicit within the programming, and one of its successes too, is an acknowledgement that there is more than meets the eye to the healthy and balanced ecology of public natural spaces and that those natural spaces are no less immune to the persuasions of class-marked moral judgements and social distinctions of taste than built environments.
In his groundbreaking 1999 treatise on sexuality and social space, ‘Times Square Red, Times Square Blue’, Samuel R. Delaney argued that the project of cultural sanitisation which literally paved the way for the tourist-focused redevelopment of Times Square was set in motion as early as the 1980s, the moment when peep shows and porn theatres were criminalised. He cites the removal of public spaces – leafy spaces, public parks and lavatories – as having eradicated a very specific opportunity for cross-class contact and communication across social and racial divides. What is swept away through gentrification under the guise of concerns for ‘family values’ and public safety rides on Delaney’s differentiation between the social interactions of ‘networking’ and ‘contact’.
“While networking may produce the small, steady income, contact both maintains the social field of the ‘the pleasant’ and provides as well the high-interest returns that make cosmopolitan life wonder-filled and rich.” S.Delaney
This possibility for and value of ‘contact’ is where Turner and Samuel R. Delaney’s writing shares an interesting affinity, even now, different cultures and two decades apart. The proverbial horse has bolted, and in the UK, there are very few spaces that are not privately owned or privatised in one way or another. But it is where Turner is at pains not to romanticise an overly pastoral view of the forest as an escape from urban life, which allows him to put forward ways to re-engage with such contested spaces. Forms of quiet activism, such as voluntary work with wildlife conservation groups become both personally as well as environmentally restorative, for example. In seeking communality, Turner also asks why kindliness is shown towards the idea of hermitage but not towards homeless people who’ve taken refuge in the forest as a result of sheer poverty rather than through any type of choosing, questioning just how deep the toxicity of an era riven by ‘us and them’/ ‘strivers and shirkers’ attitudes has permeated.
I made a second and final visit to Living Symphonies, the day before the music stopped playing. Rain broke the heatwave to leave the forest darker, more sedate.The sounds were noticeably different from just a matter of days ago, the audible influence of the change in weather conditions. As I ran a finger down sodden bark, a trunk almost blackened and glistening from heavy rainfall, memories of being little flooded in. The trees, so tall in comparison to small me, broke through the clouds from my child’s perspective. I realised that, while I cannot relate to the religious family life Turner grew up within, he and I are fortunate enough to have experienced moments during childhood made special through playing outside. We were both encouraged to develop an interest in the natural world, and to retain a curiosity towards that beyond our immediate comprehension, towards what’s bigger than us. Similarly, where one might have religious faith, another might believe that ideas and trees should outlive us, and perhaps this is the point at which reverence and reverie dovetail. Turner looks back to such times attending church service as a child with his mother, “When I was small I would lie with my head in her lap during hymns and prayers, comforted by the vibrations within her body of the sacred words and melodies she sang with such conviction and joy”.
My compass blown and reading ‘Out of the Woods’ fresh from my own breakup, it was the comfort in the ‘conviction and joy’ found in kinships held strong by shared pleasures – music, nature, art, food – that eventually led me to find my emotional north again.
Just as Greater London starts to spread into the county of Essex, there’s Wanstead Park, a smaller wooded area that was purchased by the City of London Corporation in 1880 to become part of Epping Forest estate. Months before Living Symphonies started playing and still in a swamp of post-breakup sadness, I took a walk in the woods with a friend who lives nearby. Taken by the tragic story of the 19th-century heiress, Catherine Tylney-Long, and former resident and owner of Wanstead House, my friend faux-laments, “There she was, that Catherine, a woman of means, doing just fine. Then. HE comes into the picture, they get married and he WRECKS it all”. As she rightly points out, “And none of that story is on the information sign by the grotto. What does that tell you?!” The ‘HE’ she refers to is William Wellsley-Pole, or ‘Wicked William’ as the historian Greg Roberts names him, since he was, by all accounts, an unsavoury character. The grotto, a fashion of its time and built in the throes of Wicked William’s extravagance, is just one example of how he gambled and frittered Catherine’s fortune, sinking the family so deeply into debt that it forced the sale of her estate.
My pal’s comedic delivery aside, her observation is astute; there should be some words to honour the private misery of how Wanstead Park, part of Epping Forest, came to be a public space again. We continue to chew on the topic of dodgy romantic choices and ill-fated love affairs, ours and other people’s, as we stroll past the shell of the once-grand grotto in the boating lake, a monument to a marital union ending in ruination rather than happily-ever-after.
Dragging on too long, winter let me wallow in the bleak beauty of skeletal trees and desolate heartache to a mostly instrumental, melancholic soundtrack. The odd hopeful track peppered my walks alone as I, and my gloomy playlist, shuffled on.
Restless for the company of trees, I returned to one of my favourite woods, Oxleas Wood, an ancient area of woodland in South London dwarfed by the comparative hectarage of Epping Forest, but just as magnificent. In my early teens, I took part in campaigns organised to save Oxleas Wood from the proposed development of the East London River Crossing. By 1993, the battle was won and plans were withdrawn, but this victory hastened my awakening to the reality that nothing is so sacred or established as to be exempt from the possibility of destruction or loss. I think back to walks on my own in Oxleas Wood the year before, standing on the path between the trees crowned in their summer glory. I stopped for a while, no music to accompany the place, to listen to the sounds of the woods, halting time just by doing so. The noise of a plane in slow descent competes with the bristling sway of treetops, and the faint drone of traffic from the M25, a reminder of the threat that carries in on the wind.
All images taken from the Living Symphonies website
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.