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Fowles “The Tree”

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Reread parts of John Fowles’s small book The Tree. I reread the entire chapter containing this passage:

But the danger, in both art and science, is that all emphasis is placed on the created, not the creation. All artifacts, all bits of scientific knowledge, share one thing in common: that is, they come to us from the past, they are relics of something already observed, deduced, formulated, created, and as such qualify to go through the Linnaean  and every other scientific mill. Yet we cannot say that the ‘green’ or creating process does not happen or has no importance just because it is largely private and beyond lucid description and rational analysis (47-48).

This passage always reminds me that though I want to be published, that I long for people to read what I write and be moved by it, the real point of my writing is for me to be someone shaped by the creative experience, to be alert to the world in the present moment, to live deeply, as Thoreau put it.

On the other hand, if my writing is entirely about me, a solipsistic exercise, then I suspect the project will be self-defeating. Unless my writing draws me outside myself and forces me to connect with other people, unless I am motivated by having something to say that I want to share, I am not sure the writing will have its desired effect on me. Damn balance again; it’s everywhere.

In September of 2010 I wrote a review of The Tree by John Fowles (New York: Ecco, 2010, but available in many other used editions) for Mountain Home magazine. Here it is:

I have talked about my frustration about needing to learn the names of the wildflowers all over again each year as they bloom on schedule. They return to the fields and woods like old friends whose names I can’t remember, though they are on the tip of my tongue. Being able to identify the plants, insects, and birds by name seems like such a fundamental way to pay attention to nature.

So you can imagine my surprise at statements like this one in John Fowles brief book The Tree: “Even the simplest knowledge of the names and habits of flowers and trees . . . removes us a step from total reality towards anthropocentrism; that is, it acts mentally as an equivalent of the camera viewfinder.” “Anthropocentrism” (based on the same Greek word as “anthropology,” the study of people) means seeing everything from the point of view of how it affects people. The camera view finder is a good analogy; try making a frame by putting your thumbs against your index fingers and looking through it. So much of what you see is left out of the frame.

First published in 1979 along with photographs of trees, this collection of recollections and reflections, which begins in Fowles’ father’s garden and ends in one of the few remaining patches of old-growth forest in England, has been republished a few times without the photos. At the end of this month a new paperback edition will appear with an introduction by the contemporary nature writer Barry Lopez. I enjoy reading this book again from time to time because of what is says about creativity.

Fowles contrasts the scientific and artistic relationship to nature, comparing the scientific to the domesticated, which he associates with his father’s highly-managed, suburban garden, especially his very successful fruit growing. Outside that garden, Fowles developed a love for wild nature. He sees a close connection between art and the wild. For him the most important element of art is not the art object, which can be analyzed and controlled, but the actual process of creating it, which is inside the artist, wild and free and eluding capture.

Does Fowles mean that science is evil and we should wander the forest in blissful ignorance? Hardly. Though he was already famous as a novelist (Remember The French Lieutenant’s Woman?), for many years he was curator of the Lyme Regis Museum, which emphasized geology, in his hometown in Dorset in the South of England. But he is concerned that we protect not just the wild in nature, but the wild inside ourselves and that we not succumb to the “dreadful and puritanical approach’ that requires that out relationship to nature “must be purposive, industrious, always seeking greater knowledge.” We should sometimes just be there in the wilds of the forest to resonate with the wild within us.

From the Water

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I take some pleasure in the way our house looks so radically different from the front and the back. From the street, it looks like the post-colonial 1840 house that its origins make it. It is right on the street as older houses are, and it is surrounded by its newer neighbors: 1850 on one side, 1880 on the other.

From the water on the pond behind it, however, it is hard to recognize it as the same house. The modern casement windows and French doors, the small windows at the top of the cathedral ceiling in Madalene’s studio, and the deck all give the house a contemporary look. The unpainted cedar shakes are both old and modern. The hill, which is mostly covered by the high canopy of maples and elm, slopes steeply to the pond. Stairs and retaining walls, a mix of wild and domestic plants, and the pond and its wildlife connect us with a more natural landscape, fed by the river that feeds the pond through its forested course.

So our Janus house embodies its place, and encourages us to also live in both worlds: the old and the modern, the built and the wild.

Change of Place

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Last Friday, Madalene and I set out for a walk along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in the Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. This is about a fifteen minute drive from our home. We parked our car in the small, empty parking lot, and climbed the few steps to the railingless boardwalk that gently wound its way over the dunes toward the ocean. By the time we reached the shore’s expanse, we were half a dozen steps above the edge of a dune that we padded through with the slipping step one does on damp but not firm sand. While we stood on the shore deciding which way to go, Madalene spotted a dark shape near us among the scattered weeds and driftwood. On its back, its neck extended and its beak closed, was a dead cormorant. There could have been blood on its abdomen. We studied it for a while, since we don’t get to see them up close that often, though a dead cormorant does not contribute nearly as much to the experience as a live one.

Nevertheless, I had never expected that some day, setting out for a short walk not far from home, I might come across a dead cormorant. A change in place is an experience that engenders other experiences in a way that few other changes can. Even if subtle changes between our life in the Appalachian Mountains of north central Pennsylvania and our life on the North Shore of Massachusetts elude my observation, enough big ones keep waking me up and refreshing my senses.

Winter Colors and Shapes

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Winter is not as flashy as the other seasons, but its spare beauty allows us the chance to look more closely and see more clearly. We can see the subtle variations of grays and browns, the undulations of the land itself, hidden in other seasons by mounds of plant life. Winter clears things off and smooths them out, cleans the palate and prepares the way for the messiness of spring. We are in for it now, the austere flintyness of January ice.

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