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the tree

...an experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art... including that of words.

In his long essay 'The Tree' (1979), John Fowles attempts to describe something for which by his own admission he has no words: his experience of nature, of wilderness, and specifically of woods and trees. It is a sensory experience that can't be reduced to anything else, or reproduced in images or words. It only exists in the immediacy of the experience, always more than the sum of its perceived parts. It might be compared to the experience of art, both for the artist and the audience, though as Fowles notes, art is made, it is an artefact, while nature remakes itself continuously, fleetingly and impossible to capture in artefact.

In contrast to this kind of experience stands our modern, and in Fowles' view overly dominant habit of definition, classification and scientific explanation. Everything must have its use and purpose - while the essence of nature, and of art, lies precisely in its uselessness. Fowles takes this a step further by stating that in our modern world man, too, must have his use and purpose, even if the deepest - and most confusing - experience of being human is more akin to the "green chaos" of a wood.

It's certainly a relevant theme in an age that has made economic utility a supreme virtue, and which finds lovers of both nature and art at a loss to defend the value of the 'useless'. Fowles develops timeless arguments against this trend, making 'The Tree' a thoughtful manifesto for the intrinsic value of nature and wilderness.

Fowles is best known for his novels, including 'The Collector' (1963), 'The Magus' (1966) and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969), which have been characterized as the link between Thomas Hardy and David Mitchell. But when it comes to the role of nature and landscape in his work, he seems to be closer to the 19th than 21st century English novelists. In 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', for instance, the lush jungle of the Undercliff at Lyme Regis, where Fowles long had his home, plays a crucial role as a sanctuary for tightly corseted Victorians. The stark and cruel landscape of a Greek island in 'The Magus' is equally important in evoking a mythical atmosphere for its trickster plot.

'The Tree' culminates in a description of the mysterious Wistman's Wood, hidden in a valley of the barren Dartmoor, with its strange, twisted, moss-draped dwarf oaks. These fairytalish trees also aptly symbolize 'The Tree' itself, where Fowles doesn't proceed linearly but his prose is searching, tentative and patiently exploring an environment that shrugs off interpretation. Of woods he writes:

Nowhere are the two great contemporary modes of reproducing reality, the word and the camera, more at a loss; less able to capture the sound (or soundlessness) and the scents, the temperatures and moods, the all-roundness, the different levels of being in the vertical ascent from ground to tree-top, in the range of different forms of life and the subtlety of their inter-relationships. In a way woods are like the sea, sensorially far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured. They defeat view-finder, drawing-paper, canvas, they cannot be framed; and words are as futile, hopelessly too laborious and used to capture reality.

Along the way Fowles discusses many other trees, both autobiographical - like his father's closely pruned fruit trees and the neatly classified garden of Carl Linnaeus - and cultural, drawing from the woods in English mythology and folklore and tracing the development of natural, realistic representation in painting. And he uses woods as a metaphor for the creative, meaning-producing processes that take place in our subconscious minds, and which writers and artists attempt to report on.

Anticipating his later essay 'The Nature of Nature' (1995), where he would revisit the dichotomy between science and nature, knowing and feeling, words and experience, Fowles describes what is both the experience of nature and the nature of experience.

There is something in the nature of nature, in its presentness, its seeming transience, its creative ferment and hidden potential, that corresponds very closely with the wild, or green man, in our psyches; and it is a something that disappears as soon as it is relegated to an automatic pastness, a status of merely classifiable thing, image taken then. 'Thing' and 'then' attract each other. If it is a thing, it was then; if it was then, it is a thing. We lack trust in the present, this moment, this actual seeing, because our culture tells us to trust only the reported back, the publicly framed, the edited, the thing set in the clearly artistic or the clearly scientific angle of perspective.

This notion of our "trust(ing) only the reported back" curiously fits our current age of media saturation and vicarious screen experiences. In fact, one area where this preoccupation with "the publicly framed" reveals itself is in nature, which these days tends to include signs, or screens, identifying it as nature and explaining its uniqueness. And of course many of its visitors can be seen carrying a small screen to guide their every step.

But as Fowles reminds us, this habit of reducing everything to a "merely classifiable thing" - conveniently shrunk to fit on our screens - makes us imperceptive of the unclassifiable immediacy of nature.

One of the deepest lessons we have to learn is that nature, of its nature, resists this. It waits to be seen otherwise, in its individual presentness and from our individual presentness.

wistman's wood

Names, science, history... not even the most adamantly down-to-earth botanist thinks of species and ecologies when he or she first stands at Wistman's Wood. It is too strange for that. The normal full-grown height of the common oak is thi… Read the full post »

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