Out of the Woods Review: A brave sort of intimacy
Luke Turner mixes vulnerability with the sort of insight that comes only through a complex honesty
Author Luke Turner.
Out of the Woods
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
The English word “forest” is derived from the Latin foris, meaning “what is outside”, referring particularly to the spaces outside of the city gates. “Savage”, as Luke Turner notes in this deeply personal memoir, comes from sylva, the Latin for wood. In the middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, both of the contemporary meanings for “wood” were used – “trees” and “madness”. Thus the forest is, both in history and language, a place of misrule, outside of the civilised world, a site of queer connection, where nature and mental complexity seem to exist side by side in cathartic and challenging ways.
In this memoir, which circles Epping Forest, a nearly 6,000-acre area of ancient woodland straddling the border between Essex and Greater London, home to Dick Turpin, countless murderers and innumerable gatherings of weird and wonderful folk, Turner touches on all of these complex meanings for the forest.
Returning to the site over and over again as he processes a break-up, Turner recounts searing and difficult recollections of childhood sexual abuse, and unpicks the ways in which he is still coming to terms with his bisexuality and its intersections with his religious upbringing.
In doing so, Out of the Woods practises a brave sort of intimacy, and is courageous in its honesty. By disclosing the stifling of sexuality, its confusions in the face of repressive structures, its development in the face of, and alongside, forms of toxic masculinity and, later, giving a searching exploration of the effects of sexual abuse on a queer life, Turner mixes vulnerability with the sort of insight that comes only through a complex honesty.
Out of the Woods moves skilfully backwards and forwards through Turner’s life, using the forest as an anchor
Beginning with a break-up from a long-term girlfriend, Out of the Woods moves skilfully backwards and forwards through Turner’s life, using the forest as an anchor. Often, the woods are tangential to this memoir, and the middle section of the book seems to lose sight of them. In places, there is a generic confusion. Turner is clearly drawing on the nature writing tradition and forest histories of writers such as Robert MacFarlane, Robert Pogue Harrison, and Will Ashon, whose memoir of two years of wandering in Epping Forest, Strange Labyrinth, was published by Granta in 2016.
To begin with, Turner takes a route already familiar to readers of cultural studies of the woodland: he begins with the opening of Dante’s Inferno (“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark”); stops off at Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1725), which traced the evolution of human culture as a gradual separation from the forest; and on to considerations of local history and etymology.
What Turner adds, in Out of the Woods, is a deeply personal queering of that genre, showing the importance of woodland and outdoor space to those whose sexualities (and other non-conforming identities) place them outside the regulated space of the city or the suburb. The narrative is sometimes slow or repetitive, with the personality ebbing and flowing in the early pages as Turner gives snippets of history and anecdote regarding the forest. However, by the book’s close, these details do begin to coalesce. If sometimes Turner fumbles slightly between memoir and the less personal tradition of nature writing, it is perhaps only because he is clearing a new path.
The trees themselves come to life as grotesque images of sexuality
Turner’s is an imagination in which the trees themselves come to life as grotesque images of sexuality: “cow’s udders, a pair of buttocks climbing into a hollow, old men’s balls, a phallus between thighs, great, heavy, warty growths, welts like parted vulva”. Even making a trip to Berghain, the notoriously hedonistic Berlin nightclub, he makes connections to the forest as a place of freedom and queerness: “Just like the forests, Berghain knows no morality or rules.”
In its accounts and meditations on cruising and anonymous sex, Turner’s book is tender and thoughtful, and though its insights are worn lightly, they are given a power by the gentle and reflective personality of the narrative voice.
“In our supposedly liberal age, it’s all too easy to forget the ingrained prejudice, loneliness and social isolation that force queer men to seek out places like Epping Forest and make them their own.”
Positing a challenge to complacency through deep revelations of personal experience placed in effective contexts, Out of the Woods is an interesting and often difficult-to-read meditation on wild spaces, how we use them, and why we need them.