The Tree by John Fowles

Image result for the tree john fowles“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 that then. ‘Thing’ and ‘then’ attract each other. If it is 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. One of the deeper 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.”

I picked up this slim title by Fowles on a bit of a whim, attracted by the author, who I admire, the subject matter and the slimness of the volume. The Tree is more of an essay than a book, a mere 94 pages long, but despite its brevity it covers a great deal of ground and left this reader with a great deal to think about. The Tree is Fowles’s musings on his relationship with nature, his relationship with his father and the way the two things intertwine into his relationship with literature. The book begins with the story of Fowles’s father, a man renowned for his excellent apple trees and the quality of his fruit, grown in a tiny garden and under strict, confined conditions. The iron control exercised by his father is the antithesis of Fowles’s relationship with nature, with the ‘wildness’ of it. What his father sought to control, Fowles desired to run free. Yet whilst their desires ran contrary to each other, at its root he saw a commonality and the divergence was purely in their means of expression. His father’s domineering control created the conditions into which Fowles’s wild nature could emerge, and emerge specifically in the form of imaginative writing.

Whilst Fowles casts his father as a dominating, controlling influence he is not unsympathetic to him and explores the ways in which his father was himself affected by, and shaped by, his experiences in the Great War. There’s a sense that the relationship was strained and often difficult, and that Fowles, through this writing, was seeking to exorcise some of the psychological damage resulting from that. The area that Fowles most struggled with in his father’s attitude, an attitude which is widely shared, is the need for the natural world to deliver ‘value’. His father was obsessed with the ‘value’ of his crop, though he didn’t sell it, and similarly obsessed with his son’s life and career choices delivering ‘value’. Fowles attributes this attitude in part to the dominance of science over mysticism and art, the concept that everything must be measured and classifiable, weighed and rationalised. Nature, Fowles argues, is beyond rational measurement; it is in its very nature ‘other’, unknowable, unreachable, uncontrollable, alien and wild. It is often frightening and sometimes enervating. And this wildness is reflected in ourselves, we all have a wildness in our nature, our uniqueness, our beliefs and intuitions, which defy moulding. It is the part of ourself which remains apart from ‘society’, that we can neither control nor explain. As he reflects:

“Half by its principles, half by its inventions, science now largely dictates and forms our common, or public, perceptions of and attitudes to external reality. One can say of an attitude that it is generally held by society; but society itself is an abstraction, a Linnaeus-like label we apply to a group of individuals seen in a certain context and for a certain purpose; and before the attitude can be generally held, it must pass through the filter of the individual consciousness, where this irreducible ‘wild’ component lies – the one that may agree with science and society, but can never be wholly plumbed, predicted or commanded by them.”

Fowles doesn’t question the validity of science, of scientific methods, but rather he suggests that instead of focusing on mere value we should also consider cost. Progress can deliver benefit, but it also always comes with cost. Often we look away from the cost. Nowhere is this more apparent in my mind than those most ubiquitous aspects of modern technology: the internet and the ‘smartphone’. That they allow us to be connected, to have access to information at the press of a key, that they allow us to know and experience the world in a way which has never previously been available to us is doubtless the benefit of both of these technologies. But together with value there is cost. It has never been easier to damage another human being. Cruelty and indifference are rife, as is abusive and threatening behaviour. Hysteria, frustration, depression and fear are similarly prevalent. People are addicted and manipulated, and sometimes it is unclear if we’re using the tools or they’re using us. Fowles doesn’t argue against progress, but he argues whether we’re clear about what we’re trading for it. Nature, our essential wild being, our individuality outside the abstraction of ‘society’ is what we risk when everything is forced to be useful and malleable and explainable.

“It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened word, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality. But this is nature’s consolation, its message, and well beyond the Wistman’s Wood of its own strict world. It can be known and entered only by each, and in its now, not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself. We still have this to learn: the inalienable otherness of each, human and non-human, which may seem the prison of each, but is at heart, in the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, both the justification and the redemption.”

For a short essay about trees, Fowles doesn’t talk of trees very much or very often, but rather uses them as a metaphor for his most significant relationships. That one of them was with nature just makes it a natural fit. Something about this work reminded me strongly of Marilynne Robinson’s very difficult but rewarding Absence of Mind, which similarly counselled a greater convergence between our scientific and rational attitudes with the ‘wild’ and unnameable nature of our humanity, the unexplainable thing inside us which is expressed (or often dismissed) as spirituality, mysticism, soulfulness. Fowles doesn’t demand a withdrawal from progress, he’s too canny for that, but he sees the withdrawal, the rejection, of anything which cannot be named as essentially foolish and flawed. We are wild creatures, surrounded by wild things that cannot be controlled. So don’t try to control them, embrace them and accept them for what they are. For when we accept the otherness of nature, we can accept the otherness in ourselves and, perhaps, then we can be both free and social, less conflicted and, perhaps, more fulfilled.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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13 Responses to The Tree by John Fowles

  1. This sounds wonderful. I’m a big fan of Fowles’ writing.

    • bookbii says:

      I also love Fowles, though he seems to have fallen into the trap of underrated writer. This is a lovely book, extremely brief but thought-provoking.

  2. I didn’t know that Fowles had written on nature. I wonder if the resurgence in popularity of nature writing is a reaction against the increasing influence of technology in our lives.

    • bookbii says:

      I suspect it’s part of it, though probably not the whole story. I guess you could argue there’s a resurgence in all kinds of writing. I suspect that the sense of dissonance created by our increasingly technologicial, abstractly connected lives and the core nature of our needs and wants is a big part of it. I think you’re right that there’s a reactionary process; but Fowles, writing in the 70’s, recognised the same thing, and posited a theory that it is the need to control, the ‘otherness’ of nature and the need to make it safe and tame is also a part of it. Perhaps, like the dominance of crime fiction, nature writing is just another way of un-wilding something which is inherently outside our control. And then it may be a reaction to the sense that we are overly controlled, that our social structures are prescriptive and rigid and nature offers us a momentary escape from that, it is a wildness which cannot be conquered (even though we try). I also wonder about over-population and its influence on what we might feel is a dying of the wild, as more and more green spaces are built over and turned into homes, shops, entertainment facilities. It’s a complex question. I suspect the answer is different for different people, which was part of what Fowles was addressing here in juxtaposing his response to nature with his father’s.

  3. Complex indeed, and with a long history. What we call environmentalism has its roots in the ’70s but our ambivalent attitude to nature goes back much further than that. I’m fortunate to live in a town but also to be able to walk in green space other than a park from my front door. It’s rare not to come across other walkers checking their phones when I’m out in the woods overlooking our house.

    • bookbii says:

      Yes, Fowles touches very briefly on environmentalism and in a critical way as he suggests the problem with the movement is that it looks at only small parts of the environment and not the environment as a whole e.g. save the whales, save the panda; which he sees as an inherent issue in human nature, the need to categories (and therefore own and control) everything around us. His view is that this is a flawed way of seeing, and we need to learn to see the complex whole and appreciate and accept its alienness, and then, perhaps, we can learn to protect it properly. Considering this book is only 94 pages long, it really covers an incredible amount of ground!

  4. SimplyMe says:

    I’ve requested this book through our library system and am looking forward to it greatly. With my warmest regards.

  5. JacquiWine says:

    Like Susan, I didn’t realise that John Fowles had written about this aspect of nature. How interesting! It’s been a while since I read any of his books, but I do recall liking his work. Lovely review as ever, Belinda.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jacqui. Fowles seems to be one of those writers who slinks into the background, which is a shame because he’s very good. This is a lovely, short little book which leaves a lot to think about afterwards.

  6. SimplyMe says:

    Yesterday, The Tree arrived at our small library. As you know, the rainforest surrounds me here. I open the back yard gate and there it is. I entered Fowles’ world within his text as I enter the woods — awed by a diversity (of thought in The Tree, of nature’s multiple manifestations in the forest) that I cannot encompass; hence, the delight of the always yet to be known, “the wild”, the mysterious, the wonder, the mystery.
    As best as I can articulate it, The Tree is rich experientially, both its roots and its foliage spread wide and deep — so rich, in fact, that I think I shall add a purchased copy to my personal library (which you will be amused to know, Bi, in light of your recent posts, is perhaps 150 books in total).
    I will return to this book as I periodically return to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as I return to the woods.
    Thank you for the gift, Bi.

    • bookbii says:

      Oh I’m so pleased you enjoyed this book Jan, it is brief but very impactful and it covers an incredible amount of ground. I agree it is a rich reading experience. I am so envious of your rainforest surroundings, but at least reading Fowles’s book allows a little of that through my own back door 🙂

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