John Gardner described John Fowles as “the only novelist now writing in English whose works are likely to stand as literary classics—the only writer in English who has the power, range, knowledge, and wisdom of a Tolstoy or James.” While I cannot endorse this contentious claim, I do not think that Gardner was entirely misguided in making it. Fowles possessed an intelligence and curiosity that few contemporary writers can match. He was a beguiling storyteller whose deep interest in philosophical ideas was accompanied by a vibrant and evocative style. My first encounters with The Collector and The Magus remain two of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, and my admiration for The Tree, Fowles’s enchanting essay on nature and artistic creativity, increases with each new reading.
Fowles’s main concern in The Tree is our diminished relationship with nature—diminished, he believes, because we have learned to treat it solely as something to be exploited for our own purposes. He sees this as an unfortunate legacy of Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist whose system of classification forever changed the way scientists describe the natural world. While Fowles does not deny the value of Linnaeus’s scientific contribution, he is uncomfortable with its lasting effects on human consciousness. In our obsession with naming, categorizing, and collecting things, he says, we have stopped seeing nature for what it truly is. We have learned to evaluate everything by a strictly scientific standard, to ignore anything whose worth cannot be determined by precise measurements. Consequently, we have forgotten something essential: the value of ordinary experience.
Ordinary experience, Fowles believes, is as complex and wild as nature itself. It is “unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable,” and it allows us to connect with nature in inexplicable ways. One can find evidence of this in the work of the 18th-century naturalists who “viewed nature as a mirror for philosophers, as an evoker of emotion, as a pleasure, a poem…” But today we dismiss the ideas of these naturalists as being scientifically obsolete. We have little patience for the kind of pleasure and poetry they found in the natural world.
Fowles begins The Tree with a touching portrayal of his father, a man whose life was irrevocably changed by the First World War. In the back garden of their suburban home, Fowles’s father kept a small orchard of meticulously tended fruit trees. “My father’s trees,” he writes, “must have been among the most closely pruned, cosseted, and prayed for in the whole of England, and regularly won him prizes at local shows.” While the controlled environment of this garden served as a sanctuary to a man who had seen the chaos of war, to the young Fowles it was a prison from which he longed to escape. He craved the hills and woods of the countryside, the open air, the wildness of nature untouched by human intentions. Trees were especially alluring to him. In their presence he felt as though time was twisted and transformed. “Slinking into trees,” he writes, “was always slinking into heaven.”
Fowles and his father had profoundly different relationships with nature. (“What he abhorred, I adored.”) But in this book Fowles does an admirable job of trying to understand his father’s perspective. He is careful not to dismiss his father’s ideas or to estrange himself from him because of this one particular disagreement. Looking sympathetically at his father’s life, he finds that they share something essential. Not surprisingly, he uses the tree as a metaphor: “The fact that the two branches grow in different directions and ways does not mean that they do not share a same mechanism of need, a same set of deeper rules.”
This interest in finding connections where others find none is what makes much of Fowles’s writing so intriguing. In The Tree, it leads to a compelling discussion of the similarities between nature and artistic creativity. “Art and nature are siblings,” he writes, “branches of the one tree.” He sees the woods as “the best analogue of prose fiction,” and asserts that the key to his own fiction lies in his relationship with nature. He likens the wildness of nature to the wildness of the unconscious, to “the greener, more mysterious processes of mind.” When we create art, he says, we retreat into an inner wild, a hidden and untamed part of ourselves that is similar to the woods. Neither this inner wild nor the outer one can be encompassed by science. No name or category can capture them, no tool can measure them accurately, and no words—no matter how precise or poetic—can properly describe them.
Here we come to the paradox at the heart of The Tree: Fowles has written a book about nature in which he claims that nature cannot be written about. “To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers and would-be owners of nature,” he writes; “that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn.” He emphasizes that nature must be experienced by and for oneself, that its essence cannot be conveyed by language. Reading about someone else’s account of nature is vastly inadequate, and writing about one’s own experience of it is futile and self-flattering. But then, as if in an effort to contradict himself, he proceeds to describe nature with great subtlety and eloquence, proving that although words are imperfect tools for the tasks we give them, they are not entirely useless.
The Tree is an artist’s meditation on creativity. It is an ode to nature, a lament for what we have lost in our relationship with it, and a gentle manifesto encouraging us to change our ways. Although it is relentlessly critical of our attitudes and behavior, it does not become an exercise in misanthropy as some of Fowles’s other writings seem to do. (In “The Nature of Nature,” for example—an essay that Fowles intended to be read in association with The Tree—he describes mankind as an “insufferably disgusting species.”) Here his attitude is more melancholy than contemptuous. He is saddened by the way we treat nature, not only because of the harm we are doing to it, but because of the harm we are doing to ourselves. “There is a spiritual corollary to the way we are currently deforesting and denaturing our planet,” he writes. “In the end what we must defoliate and deprive is ourselves. We might as soon start collecting up the world’s poetry, every line and every copy, to burn it in a final pyre; and think we should lead richer and happier lives thereafter.”
Each time I return to The Tree I am surprised at how short of a book it is. It contains so many thought-provoking ideas, so many interesting anecdotes and observations, that I expect it to run far longer than its ninety-one pages. Yet when it has been finished it does not seem incomplete or overcrowded. Like all good essayists, Fowles is efficient in his use of words but never frugal. He is erudite without being boring or pedantic, reflective without becoming oppressively sentimental, and affected throughout by what he refers to elsewhere as “Darwin’s disease”—that is, perpetual curiosity. He is able to write fluently about a variety of topics and to hold the reader’s interest as he recounts all sorts of personal experiences: learning about his father’s naïve attempt to write a novel; visiting Linnaeus’s famous garden in Uppsala; coming across a rare species of orchid while traveling through France; finding a waxwing feeding in the overgrown garden of a grieving neighbor; watching monarch butterflies migrate between Manhattan skyscrapers; and, in what serves as an exquisite ending to the book, returning after many years to Wistman’s Wood, a forlorn and ghostly grove of oaks stranded in the desolate landscape of Dartmoor.
“I like a wandering wood acquaintance, and no more,” Fowles writes; “a dilettante’s, not a virtuoso’s; always the green chaos rather than the printed map.” It is this green chaos—both in nature and in ourselves—that he explores so effectively in The Tree. As he tells us repeatedly in this brilliant little book, something will always be lost in the attempt to capture nature with words. But then he proves, time and again, that something can also be gained.
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.