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View of the Great Salt Lake near Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

I was introduced to the writer Barry Lopez after reading his thoughtful introduction to John Fowles‘ timeless book, The Tree (more about that here.) One of the essays included in the collection, About This Life, describes a trip Lopez took to the remote landscape of Antarctica. Titled Informed by Indifference, this essay could have been written about a number of landscapes I have known and that have moved me deeply.

Antarctica retained Earth’s primitive link, however tenuous, with space, with the void that stretched out to Jupiter and Uranus. At the seabird rookeries of the Canadian Arctic or on the grasslands of the Serengeti, you can feel the vitality of the original creation; in the dry valleys you sense sharply what came before. The Archeozoic is like fresh spoor here.

I took several long walks in the Wright and adjacent Taylor Valleys. I did not feel insignificant on these journeys, dwarfed or shrugged off by the land, but superfluous. It is a difficult landscape to enter, to develop a rapport with. It is not inimical or hostile, but indifferent, utterly remote, even as you stand in it. The light itself is aloof.

The dry valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. The air is so clear the eye can fasten effortlessly on the details, on the sharp break of shadow creases, in distant mountains, making binoculars curiously redundant. The hues of yellow and brown, the tints of orange and red that elevate the sedimentary rocks above the igneous layers of granite, take the starkness out of the land but do not alter its line, which is bold, balanced, serene. Classic.

The stillness that permeates these valleys is visual as well as acoustical. On foot, traversing a landscape that is immense but simple, your point of view, looking right and left at the mountain walls or up the valley, changes only very slowly. I had sought this stillness; but unlike the stillness I’d found in similarly austere and deserted regions of the Earth—on the tundra of Ellesmere Island, in the Namib Desert—this stillness had an edge to it. I felt no security with the Earth here, no convincing epiphany of belief in the prevailing goodwill of human beings, which always seems in the offing in these irenic places. However the Earth consoles us in the troubling matter of civilization’s acquisitiveness, its brutal disregard, this was not the landscape for it.

I know the detached disregard Lopez describes, and its impact on me is solemn and stilling. And yet I am drawn back to those landscapes repeatedly, the ones where I am an interloper who wants a glimpse into forces and scenarios so much larger than myself and my human world. Coming up against the harsh reality of our smallishness feels like a dose of the take no prisoners treatment my grandfather used to dish out. There was no monkey business with him. And there is no monkey business with a landscape that is stripped, naked and ready for whatever shows up.

Lopez ends his essay with these words:

Whatever one might impute to this landscape, of beauty or horror, seemed hardly to take hold; my entreaties for conversation met almost always with monumental indifference. I have never felt so strongly that unsettling aloofness of the adult that a small child knows, and fears. It is hard to locate the reassurance of affection in these circumstances. And yet this land informs, some would say teaches, for all its indifference. I can easily imagine some anchorite here, meditating in his room of stone, or pausing before a seal shipwrecked in this polar desert.

Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want not to forget.

If you returned it would be to pay your respects, for not being welcome.

Wild parts of Utah are like that for me. I’m headed that way tonight for 5 days. We are going out for the memorial for my mother-in-law who passed away at 89. But hopefully I’ll also get a chance to taste some of that not being welcome as well. It is the best way to a reality reset.

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Only one tree in my Brookline neighborhood is hosting a playful colony of shell-like parasols

My last post elicited several provocative comments and instigated a number of compelling conversations over the last few days. As a result I have continued to sit with several of ideas presented in The Tree, by John Fowles. It is winter in the Northeast after all, a season that inclines us to the warm fire, big armchair contemplation of our place in nature. And as the face of nature moves into its most extreme expression for us in this part of the planet, we meet it with preparation, protection and respect.

Here are a few more memorable paragraphs from the book. The selection below is actually from the introduction by the environmentalist writer Barry Lopez:

The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approach of science and “the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.” Science pounces on chaos—on “unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable” nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective…

Fowles sets down what he believes is the most dangerous of all our contemporary forms of alienation—“our growing emotional and intellectual detachment from nature.” He suggests the remedy for this lies with recognizing the debit side of the scientific revolution, understanding especially the change it has effected in our modes of perceiving and experiencing the world as individuals.

“Science is centrally, almost metaphysically, obsessed by general truths…but all nature, like all humanity, is made of minor exceptions, of entities that some way, however scientifically disregardable, do not confirm to the general rule. A belief in this kind of exception is as central to art as a belief in the utility of generalization is to science.”

Lopez points to Fowles’ use of paradox to illuminate and explore. Paradox it seems is elemental to a discussion of these issues.

The key to this paradox is the distinction Fowles makes between art and science. There is not the space here to elucidate, which is perhaps the coward’s way out on this, but some paradoxes are forever unresolvable and therefore, like koans, provoking and valuable. The best books about nature, like this one, drive you back out there, to the inchoate, the chaotic, the unresolvable.

A favorite small book, The Tree by the novelist John Fowles, is just the right place to turn for wisdom on this last day of the year. A memoir and a meditation on human and natural notions of control, The Tree can be read again and again. W. S. Merwin claims that he has carried the book with him on his travels for years. First published in 1979 (Fowles died in 2005), this book feels timeless in its clear view of where humans fit in the great chain of being.

An essential framing in the book is built around the difference between how Fowles approaches nature—in particular trees—from his own father. The elder Fowles had a small suburban garden of trees that he carefully pruned and controlled. “He had himself been severely pruned by history and family circumstance, and this was his answer, his reconciliation to his fate—his platonic ideal of the strictly controlled and safe, his Garden of Eden.” This approach reflected his larger view of life and a hatred of natural disorder. From his view, “Good philosophers prune the chaos of reality and train it into fixed shapes, thereby forcing it to yield valuable and delicious fruit.”

Not so for Fowles. When he bought a derelict farm with acres of unmanaged wildnerness, his father was horrified. From Fowles:

He would never have conceded that it was my equivalent of his own beautifully disciplined apples and pears, and just as much cultivated, though not in a literal sense. He would not have understood that something I saw down there just an hour ago…two tawny owlets fresh out of the next, sitting on a sycamore branch like a pair of badly knitted Christmas stocking and ogling down at the intruder into their garden—means to me exactly what the Horticultural Society cups on his sideboard used to mean to him: a token of order in unjust chaos, the reward of perseverance in a right philosophy. That his chaos happens to be my order is not, I think, very important.

Fowles goes on to describe how his father sent him two cordon pear trees to plant. But the outcome was not what Fowles’ father had hoped for:

They must be nearly fifteen years old now; and every year, my soil being far too thin and dry for their liking they produce a few miserable fruit, or more often none at all. I would never have them out. It touches me that they should so completely take his side; and reminds me that practically everyone else in my life—even friends who profess to be naturalists—has also taken his side; that above all the world in general continues to take his side. No fruit for those who do not prune; no fruit for those who question knowledge; no fruit for those who hide in trees untouched by man; no fruit for traitors to the human cause.

Therein lies an essential dilemma many of us face every day. Do we have the stamina to live like Fowles? Its implications for art making of any kind is deep.

The book is full of richness. Fowles goes on to decry Linneaus and the need to name, categorize and individuate every element. It is that detaching of an object from its surroundings that destroys our ability to see, apprehend and experience the whole. “What I gain most from nature is beyond words. To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers and would-be owners of nature: that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn.”

From the book:

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.

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