On a bright, breezy April morning, the folk musician and actor Johnny Flynn (The Dig, Emma), walked along the River Lea in east London with his friend, the bestselling nature writer and academic Robert Macfarlane (Underland, The Old Ways). The water was clearer than the last time Macfarlane was here, he said, and there were fewer carrier bags strewn along the banks. He pointed to a cormorant as it surfaced, and Flynn, who lives close by, recalled recently spotting a turtle while out with his son here in their inflatable canoe. Flynn gestured towards gravel filter beds, which were built in the 1800s as a result of frequent cholera outbreaks. “So there’s a heavy epidemic history to all this too,” Macfarlane said.
As they walked, Flynn and Macfarlane discussed their new collaborative project, an album, Lost in the Cedar Wood, co-written together and performed by Flynn and a band (with Macfarlane on backing vocals, he reluctantly admitted). The pair started writing the songs during the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, and recorded them last summer, when restrictions eased and they could travel to a solar-powered cottage “deep in the woods” on the Hampshire and Wiltshire border. The album is an accordion and banjo-fuelled rollick through the fears and joys of the early pandemic days, inspired both by the natural world in which they sought solace, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving piece of literature, in which the pair found echoes of the present crisis. They reflect on last spring and these influences here, in a conversation that has been cut and edited for clarity.
Robert Macfarlane: Everything was chaotic last March, right? You couldn’t make any plans, it was very hard to see the horizon line of anything, the spirit level was all over the place.
Johnny Flynn: The conversation we had at the beginning of the lockdown was like, “Shall we start trying to tell a story?” Maybe it’s a big story, but we can start with a song. We don’t have to have an end point, because we don’t know what the end point to the pandemic will be. We could one day turn it into a live kind of story-telling thing, whether that’s a traditional piece of theatre or a radio play. But we started with a song. The first one we wrote was “Enkidu Walked”.
RM: I was writing verses that were very much born of that moment. There’s a line like, “There are tents on the hillsides,” because at that point people were starting to move; people were just panicking, taking their tents, heading into the Lake District or into forests.
JF: There was that settlement in Greece, wasn’t there? There were all these lockdowns and there were a group of African migrants who were forced to stay outside of civilisation. That line evoked that.
RM: And of the cities crumbling and emptying. I wrote the line “Your rivers run clear”. Do you remember that phase where suddenly people were taking photographs of Venice canals in which you could see the bottom for the first time?
JF: Dolphins in Venice!
RM: Except that turned out not to be true! And then there was the vessel noise that was basically stopped in the sea, and so there’s a line about that: “A pause in the storm, a lull in the violence.” A lot of these images bounced straight out of the days and the months and into the songs. Suddenly we heard with new ears the birdsong, which was this insane volume because it was unmasked from the ambient roar of internal combustion engines, and the sky was contrail-free, and I remember it just being this greenness bursting. It felt like a kind of liquor that I couldn’t drink enough of.
JF: As well as that, I found that so much stuff went away: the invisible stuff that distracts us because of the preoccupation with getting from A to B and getting the kids to school. I’m always walking around in this fug of thought and deadlines and “I must call that person”. One by one, everyone would call and say, “Well, we can’t do that thing,” all the festivals were off, the play that we were going to do was not happening. And suddenly, I could hear. Nature was louder, but also I could hear more clearly because I didn’t have that stuff distracting me. It was an explosion, for me, of excitement, even though with three young kids at home, it was quite difficult to find time and space to write.
RM: You were literally composing at the breakfast table! You’d occasionally send me these voice memos of tracks in the making. There was a grumpy one where you say, “I’m just trying to record the music!” because you can hear the kids in the background. I love the way it broke down the idea of this solitary maker, kind of in the shrine. Because work is made around the edges of life, particularly with kids around.
JF: That first lockdown brought about a sense of madness. There was a Groundhog Day-ness to it. It was really sunny, but it wasn’t paradise.
RM: The world was burning beyond the perimeter, and burning close. It was that weird double feeling that I think we perhaps all still have, that the pandemic was shattering one world but there was within that the potential to make a better world. It made me think of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which in its oldest form is getting on for 4,000 years. It was itself literally buried; it was spotted on these tablets from Ashurbanipal Library and then excavated, rediscovered by Hormuzd Rassam and Austen Henry Layard in the mid-19th century and brought back, and the cuneiform was decoded and the tablets are still in the British Museum, from near Mosul in modern-day Iraq.
JF: You introduced the story to me. I remember at that point, to you, it was like, well, because it’s this central, archetypal story from which almost all Euro-Asian central continental stories began, it seemed almost too obvious to you. But I was like, “Well, yeah, this is the one”.
RM: The oldest story in world literature! It’s about friendship: there’s a deep friendship, male friendship, at its heart. It’s about loss and grief and coming to terms with mortality. It’s about very bad governance – we’ve seen a lot of that – and it’s also about a kind of overweening hubris towards the natural world that arises from treating it purely as a resource. At its heart is an act of wanton and unnecessary deforestation, which is how the pandemic began. The characters Gilgamesh and Enkidu systematically strip the animist presence of the forest, Humbaba, of his auras. Once that’s done, they slay Humbaba and then they take their axes to the sacred cedar wood and they chop down trees in a way that is completely surplus to their needs, and from that all bad spills. You couldn’t get a clearer warning from 4,000 years ago of the dangers of this kind of work.
JF: I read it as an ancient wisdom book that was speaking about all time. The deforestation, the eco side of the story is not separate from the moment that we’re living in now: it beautifully, poetically outlines the fact that if you’re living in offence to nature, nature will come back at you a thousandfold, and there’s no 4,000 years between then and now in that regard. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are so unwise at the beginning of the story, and in their arrogant kind of love of each other and this very male need for glorification, they hatch this plan to go and chop down this forest, and that’s just like, you know: that’s Jair Bolsonaro. And you were sending me articles about the pandemic being caused by deforestation and species migration.
RM: It was there when we recorded too. At the cottage, there’s forestry on one side and broadleaf woodland on the other. One of the songs is called “Tree Rings” and it begins: “It was the first of the tellings of all of the fellings”. As we were recording, foresters turned up and started using chainsaws to fell a big tree. The chainsaws were biting into the forestry and whining in the background. It was commercial forestry, they weren’t logging 800-year-old oaks or anything, but it felt absolutely true to the moment.
JF: We had set up loads of room mics: we didn’t want anything to be excluded, we wanted the chainsaws, we wanted the birdsong; we wanted the laughter and the celebration when we got the take right.
RM: The songs we wrote together are of the year of their making, but they also have these echoes back. When we look back at ancient texts, we find so many uncanny repetitions. Beowulf, which is a founding text of Anglophone British quote-unquote “Old English” literature, is basically about killing the wild, isn’t it? There are the militarised Geats who are safe in their mead-hall, but they see the wildeor, the wild creatures, as a threat, so they go up onto the moors and they hunt them down and they slay them. And then vengeance comes in the form of Grendel’s Mother and more violence ensues. And Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another sort of ecological parable, I think, and the Finnish Kalevala, the great folk-epic of the Baltic and Karelia, is also full of warnings. I look back and get these uncanny shivers of recognition, but also of heedlessness. Why don’t we heed warnings?
JF: They’re all stories of imbalance, aren’t they? And we keep returning to these stories because there’s only ever questions asked, rather than any answers drawn. I think there’s a value in returning to these stories and trying to reinterpret them, because I think if you’re a good story-teller, you’re not trying to define “This is the one!”. I think you ask the question that’s posed by your own age through the lens of the story, and that’s the way through it. Each generation projects contemporary morality onto these stories. We continue to try and translate them through our own wisdom.
“Lost In The Cedar Wood” is released on Transgressive Records on 14 May. Johnny Flynn will perform on “Later…with Jools Holland”, 10pm on 21 May on BBC Two