Sometimes it is good to get away from the leaves of a book and take a walk among the real leaves, especially if you are reading John Fowles’ provocative book-length essay, The Tree. In it, he ponders and questions the connection between humans and nature, especially our perception of of the natural world, how we see both the forests and the trees.
Now re-released in a 30th anniversary edition, this is a true “green” book, but not in the way you might think. Fowles isn’t much on classification and conservation, except in our preservation of wilderness, “the green chaos” that can’t be tamed at the very heart of things.
Most readers know Fowles, who died in 2005, as a master novelist — The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, Daniel Martin, The Ebony Tower — which are among my favorite books. But he also wrote some wonderful nonfiction, and for a long time, I would read anything he wrote just because he wrote it in such graceful, elegant and discerning prose. I can remember being disappointed by his later fiction — Mantissa and The Maggot — but I was won back by the essay collection Wormholes, especially the pieces on nature and his beloved Lyme Regis. The two-volume The Journals were revelatory as to his times and intense introspection, but I admit to some skimming.
As for The Tree, it has been celebrated and anthologized, and it certainly bears rereading. As Barry Lopez rightly notes in the introduction, Fowles’ ideas at time might appear too abstract and paradoxical except he’s too good a storyteller.
And so I willingly followed him back to the anecdotes about his childhood, which was divided by the war, between suburbia (his father’s preference) and the Dorset countryside (his own). He discusses the Victorian mania for naming things, and also the Middles Ages’ perception of the forest as “evil” in its wildness, “an immense green cloak for Satan.” Our fears of the wood, he contends, are hardly dead — the private garden detests “wild nature.”
My favorite sections of The Tree deal with the intersection of art and nature, how we struggle with words and pictures to capture its reality. Then there is the metaphorical forest, the preferred setting since Gilgamesh for the literary adventure and quest. Although the city appears to have replaced the forest in the contemporary novel, Fowles makes a good argument that “Sir Galahad and Philip Marlowe are blood brothers.”
In the last section, Fowles sets out to Wistman’s Wood, an almost hidden bit of primeval forest on the Dartmoor Moor, copses of ancient, twisted, dwarfish oaks, its floor like a “tilted emerald sea.” Here, in this isolated, strangely tropical place he contemplates how he came to writing by nature, and the secret being of the woods that can only be entered by the individual consciousness.
And so I take a walk to clear my head, to think and not think. Are the leaves on the dogwood dimpling with yellow because we haven’t had rain in weeks, or is it finally fall in Florida? The oaks are always green, one way or another, but the acorns crackle under foot in the growing dark. I hear an owl, lost to sight in the leaves and limbs of the tree above me.
Open Book: Ecco Press sent me an advance readers’ copy of The Tree by John Fowles as part of an internet promotion. It’s a “real” book, once a tree.