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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.

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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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