“Nature is complex, beautiful and terrifying” — An interview with Luke Turner, by Thom Cuell

Luke Turner’s memoir Out of the Woods explores the author’s relationship with nature, religion, sexuality and childhood trauma. Beginning as a conventional history of Epping Forest, Turner’s own relationship with that space deepens the text, as he explores the way in which he has been drawn to the forest during moments of personal crisis. Out of the Woods is especially affecting when Turner confronts the harmful impact of homophobic legislation on his childhood, his compulsive behaviour, and the way in which artists such as Derek Jarman and Suede offered him a new way of being as a young man.

First of all, can you tell us about what Epping Forest means to you, and what drew you to write about it? 

What Epping Forest means to me now is very different to what it meant to me when I first thought of the book, as I wrote it, when it came out, and as it was in memory from childhood. Now that the dust (or leaves lol) has (have) settled in the year since Out of the Woods was published, I realise that much of what makes forests fascinating and beautiful to me is that they’re places of constant change and renewal in an ecological sense, which then can reflect our own emotions and mental state. We eddy alongside them as much as the leaves do when they fall in autumn. Six years ago I started writing what was intended to be a simple social history of Epping Forest, seeing it through the eyes of London, the city that has had such a profound impact on it – arguably even creating it – over the centuries. It was also where my family are from and was very dear to me as a child. I realise now that to try and deal with my dysfunctional self I was trying to return to it in a childlike way, which was obviously doomed to failure. The process of realising that is Out of the Woods.

You talk about the forest as a place of ‘vulgar chaos’, can you tell us a bit more about what that means for you? 

On a simple level exactly that – Forests are “giant carpets of death” as I describe them in the book. Wherever you look are whirls of branches, twigs, fallen logs, dense holly, paths that make no sense, human detritus. I worked on an ecological survey of a 30×20 metre square of the Forest last year as part of the Waltham Forest Borough of Culture programme I co-curated with Kirsteen McNish. In that tiny space we not only found innumerable species of flora and fauna, but plenty of booze containers stretching back to the 19th century, discarded clothing, three condom wrappers and a bucket of hypodermic needles. Nearly buried in the ground was a very old beer bottle that had a tiny green plant growing in it, glowing in the sun, a secret natural terrarium. We left it there. All of that, to me, is the vulgar chaos – but I don’t see ‘vulgar’ as being a pejorative term.

You discuss your religious childhood, particularly the disparity between the radical Christian legacy which inspired you, for example groups like the Levellers and the Ranters, the supportive environment of your family, and the often conservative present-day religious culture around you. How do you reconcile these strands of religion, and have you managed to find a position within that you feel comfortable with in adult life?

I have, and that’s largely been through writing Out of the Woods, and the reception to it from people of faith. That Christian legacy is very much alive in how I see the world, I’ve never been able to or wanted to reject it. Yet I had thought there were two ‘sides’ of the self that were contradictory and the struggle between them was what caused a lot of trauma. However the book has led to so many wonderful and nuanced conversations about faith and sexuality – one of those rare things social media has been good for is connecting with the huge number of queer clergy and Christians generally out there. It’s been really moving at times. When we got a beautiful quote from Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle for the cover and also a lovely review from the Church Times that did feel like the dream really – these places that might seem entirely at odds might not be so after all.

You grew up at the time of Section 28, when LGBTQ voices were being actively suppressed in education; how do you think this affected you as a young man, in terms of your ability to understand your own developing sexuality?

It’s only in later life that I’ve begun to understand how toxic Section 28 was for me and so many more. It was such a clever and sinister policy because it legislated silence. In that silence we had no frame of reference to understand our sexualities, leaving us vulnerable to prejudice. How can you find yourself as a queer person when your frame of reference is a few cliched characters in mass entertainmemnt, or through bigoted homophobic media coverage?

In the absence of knowing other people my own age who were trying to work their way through their sexuality that inevitably led me to find it in the grim spaces where I became easy prey to pederasts and predators. I know I was not alone in this.

Art can often provide a language to express thoughts which you had been unable to articulate before – in your case, you talk about Derek Jarman, Throbbing Gristle and Suede as key influences on you in adolescence.  What was is about these artists which spoke to you, and how has their importance to you changed over time? 

I think all of them dealt with the complexity of sexual and gender identity and (I’d add Pet Shop Boys here too) did it via a very explicit sense of Englishness. Not in a parochial, nationalistic way of course, but taking that seediness and corruption of our country, the humour and the repression, and turning into violent, extravagent, hilarious, sensuous and beautiful art. The 90s were such a horribly bland and boorish decade that those artists were an incredible escape from both laddism and the banal mainstream culture coming from the USA. I suppose these days I see these artists in a less teenage and hormonal way, but that passion is still there – as I type I am also engaged in an in-depth text conversation excited about going to see the Pet Shop Boys in May.

In your memoir, you frankly talk about your early sexual experiences and ‘the havoc they wrought’ – particularly, you say that ‘understanding that you’ve been a victim can be a long, fraught process’. How did you go about confronting the abuse you experienced, and what impact did this process have on you? 

I spent years explaining away what happened to me from the ages 14 to 18 (and to be honest beyond – coercion doesn’t end when you reach the age of consent) as a rite of passage or just what horny teenage boys do. It took until I was well into my 30s, and in a total mess, that I went to a therapist who specialises in male victims of abuse to realise what had happened to me was problematic, was abuse, and that it had impacted my sexual behaviour ever since. Therapy and writing Out Of The Woods has given me a way of dealing with that legacy. I know that male sexual abuse is far more common than we really know. It’s such a taboo and a deep lonely secret for so many. If anyone reading this has been a victim I’d urge speaking to a therapist (some sexual health clinics are able to put you in touch with free consultations) or speak to an organisation like Survivors, who do amazing work.

Throughout Out of the Woods, you feel that your sexuality marks you as an outsider, in church and school, but also in the LGBTQ+ society, where bisexuality was often trivialised or dismissed. How did it feel to even be on the margins here? And do you feel that attitudes to bisexuality have changed over time? 

It was always very strange as I never seemed to encounter other bisexual men aside from those who lived in the closet but were on ‘gay’ websites and apps or in cruising spaces. So it was very lonely – I think the male bisexual identity is a lonely one because so many choose to pass as straight men and live obstentiably straight lives, but are unable to discuss their sexuality with partners and friends. Since my 20s I’ve been openly bisexual and that’s been a really positive experience, though it’s only recently that the societally-enforced questioning of ‘am I just a closet gay man argghh’ has abated. Gay male culture definitely didn’t help with that but things are definitely changing and since Out of the Woods came out I’ve not experienced any biphobia relating to it, except in the preposterous Evening Standard review where the writer called me a “typical switch hitter”. Still, that article said more about the person who wrote it than it did about me.

You recognise that apps like Tinder and Grindr can facilitate harmful patterns as they re-organise our sexual and romantic behaviours. How do we navigate this, and how hard is it to escape from this habit of easy gratification? 

Tinder and Grindr and the other data apps are just part of the red dot curse of social media gratification, they just happen to have the most powerful driving emotion in the human body at their core. They’ve turned the base reason for human existence into a means of temporary gratification. I think we need to have a more nuanced conversation about all that. I keep seeing that we have to be hashtagsexpositive at all times and never critique promiscuity and that seems deeply off to me. I had amazing, hot, fruity, hilarious times via the dating and sex apps but they also led to some really depressing incidents and eventually contributed to compulsive behaviour that wasn’t healthy and essentially all leads back to the abuse I went through as a teenager. Again, it’s an area that is deeply complicated and nuanced and we need to engage with that – in my 20s, certain sexual practices and behaviours worked as means of reclaiming my body and my confidence and identity from the legacy of abuse. But as I got older, they started sending me back to a very twisted place. Writing Out of the Woods was a huge help  in beating it, as was scrimping to be able to afford therapy, and falling in love.

One of the strands that runs through your book is the search for a mysterious ancestor, who connects your family to Epping Forest. What did you find through this research, and what effect if any did it have on your family? 

I can’t be telling you that as it’s too much of a spoiler for the book! haha.

You feel a kinship with a modern-day hermit you’re introduced to, who lives in the forest, but ultimately decide that ‘opting out’ of society isn’t for you. What was it that kept you hooked in to the city? And does the idea of going off-grid ever appeal? 

The man who lived in Epping Forest had made an overwhelming existential and partly unconscious decision to leave the modern world because he wanted to leave life itself, not sit in a yurt smugly whittling spoons and then writing a column about it. The trouble with going off-grid is often a statement of privilege. To be able to remove yourself from society as the bearded self help whoppers do is a statement that seems to speak of superiority to everyone left back in the modern world. Not everyone can do it. I certainly couldn’t. I don’t think that makes what I was going through then in terms of depression any less real, just that I knew I had to be in the city and confronting my past in able to get through it.

Towards the end of Out of the Woods, you mention ‘the failure of the supposedly infallible nature cure’. Do you feel like modern culture encourages us to have unrealistic expectations of nature as a tool to cure the broken?

Absolutely. If I have one disappointment in the year since Out of the Woods was published it’s that it hasn’t opened up more of a debate that seeks to question the Nature Wellness Industry. I still see endless waffle about Forest Bathing and so on – fine if it works for you, terrible if it doesn’t. The excellent writer Eleanor Morgan told me about a psychological condition called the Tyranny Of Should – if something should make you better, like going for a walk in nature, and doesn’t, then you might double down on the self-loathing and sense that you are truly a broken person. I was definitely subject to the Tyranny of Should in Epping Forest. I think the complexity of the relationship between the natural world and mental health continues to be ignored, and that is a problem. At an event I did earlier this year a woman approached me afterwards and said that she struggles with mental health issues and her friends always tell her to go for a walk in the local woods. She says she’ll go there but as she approaches the looming trees she just wilts: “me, against all that? I can’t do it”. We need more discussion of the natural world in the context of people who feel like that, or who are physically unable to get into nature due to mobility issues, or are from BAME backgrounds and feel the British countryside isn’t for them. Nature is complex, at times beautiful at others terrifying, and so is our relationship with it, as part of it. I really hope we continue to interrogate that in coming years and given the climate crisis and ecological collapse that feels like a vital thing to do.

Luke Turner‘s critically-acclaimed memoir Out of the Woods, a reflection on sexuality, masculinity and the relationship between humans and ‘nature’ is his first book. Out Of The Woods was shortlisted for the 2019 Wainwright Prize for nature writing, longlisted for the Polari Prize for first book by an LGBT+ writer, and Turner has been selected by Val McDiarmid as one of 10 most important LGBT+ writers for a British Council and National Centre for Writing initiative. In 2020 Turner co-curated a programme of arts events celebrating the landscape and people of Epping Forest as part of Waltham Forest’s stint as the first London Borough of Culture. He is co-founder and editor of The Quietus and writes for a variety of publications.