This extended essay is an observation of how our impulse to control nature deadens the human experience. Fowles opens the essay by contrasting his father’s perfectly pruned fruit trees to his own gone-to-seed acres. Our desire to identify, examine, name and categorize is another method of trying to tame the wild, but this effort comes at a cost:
Naming things is always implicitly categorizing and therefore collecting them, attempting to own them; and because man is a highly acquisitive creature, brainwashed by most modern societies into believing that the act of acquisition is more enjoyable than the fact of having acquired, that getting beats having got, mere names and the objects they are tied to soon become stale. . . But we are far better at seeing the immediate advantages of such gains in knowledge of the exterior world than at assessing the cost of them. The particular cost of understanding the mechanism of nature, of having so successfully itemized and pigeon-holed it, lies most of all in the ordinary person’s perception of it, in his or her ability to live with and care for it–and not see it as challenge, defiance, enemy.
In fact, Fowles beautifully argues that we will truly conserve nature when we stop evaluating it for its purpose. Learning about nature can feel like a discourse rather than an experience. Our interaction is too heavily weighted to knowledge at the sacrifice of understanding. Even nature films can be a disservice because the wonder of wild places is muted by knowledge divorced from experience. Fowles yearns for the eighteenth century approach of viewing “nature as a mirror for philosophers, as an evoker of emotion, as a pleasure, a poem.” Nature that is experienced not just mentally but as an “entire human being.”
Fowles finds a similar parrallel in art. He describes the artist’s self-expression and self-discovery as the deepest benefit of art. Yet, as with nature, art is parcelled, labeled, and analysized in a vocabulary similar to science. He sees the paradox of this “knowing-naming technique” being applied to a non-scientific object that even the artist (the actual creator) would find difficult to articulate.
Fowles attributes his writing process to the hours of solitary exploration meandering in the local woods. His story development doesn’t evolve from an clearly defined outline, but a messy wandering along a narrative. One topic that kept reoccurring in my mind as I read the essay was fear, as I envisioned myself ambling through a wood I felt vulnerable. Fowles delineates the history of the danger myth, much of which has to do with a need to control society and associating wilderness with a wild nature. He advocates turning that on its head, that the way to save nature is stop viewing it as detached from ourselves, to see it as interwoven in our lives as part of the human existence.
Fowles argues that the meaningful human experiences with nature and art are ultimately indescribable. Nevertheless, he ends the essay relaying an experience in an old growth forest, Wistman’s Wood. Fowles writing was beautiful as he painted the trees and his walk, I felt he walked into another magical world. Almost beyond words, Fowles gave me a glimpse of the majesty and wonder of his experience.
Fowles essay doesn’t state facts or figures, it creates a love of and desire to experience nature far beyond trail descriptions and bird lists. Reading The Tree is a wonderful way to commemorate Earth Day.