Book Review: The Tree, By John Fowles

“I spent all my younger life as a more or less orthodox amateur naturalist; as a pseudo-scientist, treating nature as some sort of intellectual puzzle, or game, in which being able to name names and explain behaviourisms…constituted all the pleasures and the prizes. I became slowly aware of the inadequacy of this approach: that it insidiously cast nature as a kind of opponent, an opposite team to be outwitted and beaten; that in a number of ways it distracted from the total experience and the total meaning of nature…”

Described as a meditation on the connection between nature and art, John Fowles’ The Tree is first and foremost, a reflection on the natural world and man’s relationship to it. As he recalls his father’s meticulously pruned fruit trees in their suburban back yard south of London, Fowles establishes the correlation between scientific methodology and man’s obsession with “clearly defined boundaries, unique identities, of individual things released from the confusion of the background.”

The problem, he argues, lies in our supposing that the “limiting nature” of scientific methodology directly corresponds with that of ordinary experience. He suggests that each moment is a unique blend of “past memories and present perceptions, times and places, private and public history” so complex as to be utterly beyond science’s analytical capabilities.

So when we approach nature from this place it has the same effect, mentally, as a camera viewfinder. That is, even the most basic knowledge of the names and habits of flowers or trees can “destroy or curtail certain possibilities of seeing, apprehending and experiencing.”

This is something most mature artists already know. Fowles writes: “…great general knowledge is more a hindrance than a help…in nine cases out of ten what natural knowledge and imagination cannot supply is in any case precisely what needs to be left out.” In this way (and others), Fowles believes that art and nature are “siblings, branches of the one tree.”

And just as our relationship to nature has become increasingly “scientized”, so to has our relationship to art: “art as vocation (that is, something to which one is genetically suited) is dismissed as non-scientific and inegalitarian. It is not a gift beyond personal choice, but one that can be acquired, like knowledge of science, by rote, recipe and hard work.”

All the knowledge in the world of technique or craft will produce little more than imitations and replicas, argues Fowles. It is “the personality of the artist, the expression of his or her unique and individual feeling” that makes an object of art original.

In his introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of The Tree, author Barry Lopez described having to put the book down and walk away from it several times because “its thought was as stimulating” as he could stand. As the author of several bestselling novels including The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles’ writing is obviously very readable; however, his thought process is, as Lopez later said in an interview with The Paris Review, “ramulose” to the point of being overwhelming at times, but perhaps this is intentional.

 The Tree is not an admonition or call to action necessarily; it’s purpose is to draw attention to the “validity of an individual’s unarticulated experience with the natural world”, a notion of greater import now than it was in 1979 when The Tree was originally published.

In this age of perfectly curated social media feeds, Fowles’ words are especially resonant: “Some such process of retreat from the normal world…is inherent in any act of artistic creation…And a part of that retreat must always be into a ‘wild’ or ordinarily repressed and socially hidden, self…The artist’s experience here is only a special – unusually prolonged and self-conscious – case of the universal individual one. The return to the green chaos, the deep forest and refuge of the unconscious is a nightly phenomenon, and one that psychiatrists…tell us is essential to the human mind. Without it, it disintegrates and goes mad.”

The Tree is an inspiring read that reaffirms the importance of our connection to nature and reminds us to dissociate it from the notion of usability, to embrace uncertainty and trust the present moment.