Going for a walk in the woods.
‘Do you want to write a dispatch from the fuck tree,’ texted this publication’s editor Charlie Baker, unprompted.
‘Lmaooooooooo,’ I responded. ‘Do you mean the fuck tree.’
‘I do,’ he sent back. ‘It’s fuck tree season.’
He was quite right, of course.
It’s common knowledge that Hampstead Heath is a popular spot for men to find sex with one another. What’s managed to elude public consciousness is the existence of the fuck tree.
I’d never visited the tree, but had known since trawling the proto-Grindr gay web as a frustrated teen that somewhere in Hampstead Heath’s 791 acres there was a tree that served as the centre of the woods’ thriving cruising scene.
I accepted the commission: I had always been curious to see the bark against which St George Michael himself might have been railed.
Hampstead Heath’s cruising happens well away from the tourist throngs of Parliament Hill, in a part of the park characterised by dense forest. Much of the hunt happens on narrow paths that cut through the undergrowth: as in straight nightlife venues, indicating interest is a matter of eye contact and body language.
The trails are excellent for cruising: a very different breed of desire path, they follow leisurely arcs which offer ample opportunity to eye up a prospect (and regular junctions that let you switch tracks if you decide you’re not interested).
There’s a trope in queer history that gay men, by dint of having often lived double lives, make for good spies. I offer a further dint: if this is how we used to have to find sex, the community must have been bloody good at pathfinding.
In the end, on the Saturday I visited, it took about half an hour to find the tree. I’d always imagined the thing as a conveniently placed log, but the fuck tree is alive.
It’s poetically perfect for its role. The roots of the tree splay out like a hand clutching a bed sheet; the trunk is prone and abdomen-high, its belly flat to the Heath floor before making an abrupt 45-degree lift toward the canopy. This tree, I tell you, has a slutty little back arch.
(A passing seven year-old boy had a different take, describing it to his family, with great thrill, as ‘slug-like’.)
It turns out the fuck tree is in less secluded a location than you’d think. When I found it there wasn’t a cruiser in sight, but two women in leggings and hoodies strolled by swigging Starbucks and walking a labrador. I won’t give too many clues as to its whereabouts; like the location of the tallest redwood, those fortunate enough to be party to the information ought to keep it quiet.
But it was definitely the tree – this was confirmed by the discovery of a condom wrapper nestled in the litterfall by the trunk.
While the Heath is open for business at all hours, its perch at the edge of a wide clearing means the fuck tree is not. So I came back the following Saturday, at 9pm.
I was disappointed, on locating the fuck tree, to again find it deserted. I stood sentinel at the treeline waiting for something to happen and was eventually joined in my sentry by a handful of cruisers who quietly interspersed themselves at the edge of the clearing like church ushers waiting for worshippers to arrive.
I mulled the journalistic ethics of just going and draping myself over the tree to get things going. I’d planned this as a work of dispassionate observational reporting, but knowing objectivity is a ruse, I was prepared to go gonzo. (Well, I say that: the logistical challenges involved in confidently bottoming an hour from your home without having an accident are like those involved in placing a rocket on the moon. Something can always go wrong.)
I needn’t have worried. Nature found its course. A tall, athletic man in gym shorts and high socks arrived and arranged himself at the primest spot, like a vendor setting out their stall.
The ring of watchers drew tighter. Folks appeared from the foliage and began coupling off with the sentries, swapping head out in the open. But the bottom went untouched.
I felt bad as I regarded, from across the clearing, the pale rectangle of his jockstrap-framed cheeks. I slunk around the fuck tree’s raised bough to chat to him.
‘Is it usually this quiet?’
The bottom was bemused. ‘It’s early yet,’ he said.
He was young, probably in his early thirties. Fair-haired, English accent. Like everyone else, his features were blurs across his face. Away from that clearing I imagined him as a chartered surveyor or a portfolio manager. He told me peak hours wouldn’t arrive until midnight, fully an hour and a half away.
I hitched away to camp out and write up some notes. By the time I came back the light in the clearing was so murky I hadn’t even realised the fuck tree had, at last, manifested.
You imagine a gangbang to be all muscle-clad Adonises pistoning; grunts and curses emanating everywhere. But this was furtive, as a solidly built silhouette mutely oscillated into the placid bottom.
The most thrilling realisation, from a journalistic perspective, was that a second bottom had appeared. He was leant across the fuck tree in the opposite direction from the first, creating a pleasing symmetry that was, remarkably, preserved as yet more boys – five in all, by my count – proferred themselves upon the storied bark.
Without light to see, the most vivid moments were sonic. The long sound as someone unzipped their bag for wet wipes; the plastic crunch as he rehydrated from a water bottle; the gurgle of a spectator’s bong; the recognisable squeak as a different participant, dressed in a leather jacket, adjusted to a more comfortable position.
On no obvious signal, the rutting evaporated. Cruisers peeled away separately into the bushes. It was 11:59pm and I had no doubt they would return after a break spent walking the paths. But I’d seen what I came for and I had a long night-bus journey home ahead.
Well. Saying that. If you’ve already managed the moon landing, why deny yourself the moon walk?