on September 28, 2010
When I received this fantastic book I was absolutely blown away by the life-changing words. This is the thirtieth anniversary of this wonderful nonfiction look at how the natural, "wild" world affects our human lives. Mr. Fowles passed away in 2006, but his legacy of classic stories including The Gift and, my favorite, The French Lieutenant's Woman, will remain part of our culture for the rest of time. But this small yet, intricate, look at how this fantastic author "saw" life, and the relationships that made up his own existence, should truly be a permanent fixture on every human's bookshelf.
Talk about taking me home to my upbringing in the "hills" of Connecticut; this author first speaks about the trees. Throughout history, trees have provided many different things to different people; they've been the sanctuary for some, as well as the hiding place for the "justly and unjustly persecuted and hunted." This is a powerful statement. Whether living in a city or wild country, if the trees could speak, we can only imagine what stories they could tell.
Mr. Fowles grew up in London - the huge city where activity was a constant. His father was a man who had a small garden in the back of their flat, and worked very hard at keeping his bushes, flowers, and trees alive. Here was the place where John's father would go and be one with nature. John, unlike his father, wanted the "openness" of the countryside. He wanted to go on "woodland walks" where a path would lead him into the unknown. He even goes into a garden in the old Swedish university town of Uppsala, where a beautiful garden resides that is equaled only by the one spoken of in the Book of Genesis. But the one "chord" that kept driving home with me was his father. His father had a deep love of philosophy, and the trees that he cultivated by his own hand were what made him truly happy.
When the war came, the family had to move to the countryside which made John extremely happy for the unknown, wide open spaces, but made his father completely miserable. Gone were the "fruits" that he, himself, had brought to life so the countryside for him was not a joy, but a hindrance. I am very much like the author's father. I lived a great deal in the open expanse of the woodland hills, but I longed for the faster-pace of city living, where a small tree languishing in the cement outside of an apartment building was the only "green" nature to be seen for miles. As I grow older and, certainly after reading the poignant words of this wonderful author, I have moved to small dwellings and gone back to the beauty and wonder that nature brings. In fact, when we're all gone, the trees will still be here; they will still be whispering stories and fantasies, and clinging to the lives that have left the Earth. That is a powerful thing to think about.
Now that this wonderful author is gone, I can only imagine what the wind whistling through those mighty trees that he discovered have to say about him. I'm very sure that, like all the humans who read this man's wonderful words, the trees miss him and his truly beautiful soul.
Amy Lignor, [...] Reviewer
John Folwles is widely known as a novelist, but many revere his work `The Tree". There is an introduction by Barry Lopez who says he had to get up and walk away from the book several times because its thought was so stimulating. For a lot of people this is a wonderful meditation. But for many others the thoughts will be esoteric and much too philosophical.
Fowles does tell of the differences between him and his father, especially in the fact that his father tightly pruned and forced his fruit trees to his will, while Fowles is content to let everything revert to a natural state. The thoughts are rambling and the style is not easy.
An example of his style is: "Nowhere are the two great contemporary modes of reproducing reality, the word and the camera, more at a loss; less able to capture the sound (or soundlessness) and the scents, the temperatures and moods, the all-roundness, the different levels of being in the vertical ascent from ground to tree-top, in the range of different forms of life and the subtlety of their inter-relationships." For many , most of the reading will require a double read to understand. The thoughts are all superior and interesting just not the easiest to comprehend at a quick glance.
This book is indeed for the philosophers among us.
This is the 30th anniversary edition of John Fowles legendary essay about trees. Or rather, what trees mean in a greater sense than just the biological. At first, I expected this to be similar to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring-both were written decades ago. However, this slim text is more of a set of questions rather than answers. In fact, despite the title, it could be said that trees are just the smallest portion of his purpose.
"Do we feel that unless we create evidence-photographs, journal entries, picked and pressed flowers, tape recordings, pocketed stones-we haven't actually been intimate with nature?"
Fowles was known for writing The French Lieutenant's Woman as well as other fiction titles. Here, in this book, he discusses via anecdotes the relationship between humans and nature, and the juxtaposition between nature on its own and our experience of nature. First, the introduction by Barry Lopez comfortably sets the scene, and hints that this is no simple environmental manifesto. And never does Fowles lecture about how people should view nature; rather, he talks about what nature may or may not mean in a larger sense.
For example, he talks about his childhood home where his father cultivated small garden and fruit trees. Nothing was out of place, and while it was in the city, his father managed to tame anything unruly from the garden. Clearly it was his goal to conquer the plot of land. He was the victor over it. Yet his son, Fowles, purchases property that is larger, but by no means tame. Fowles neither cultivates or cuts back, he sees no point in amending the soil, pruning the trees, and to the horror of his father, the parcel of land is wild. Is it a moral battle over who conquers the natural world? Is it nature if you've directed its every movement? Fowles doesn't presume to answer, he just asks.
In a further irony, which tells a great deal about his father, Fowles recalls how his father could walk for miles in the city, yet would only hike a few hundred meters in the countryside. The untame pastoral scene frightened him or inhibited him, likely because of its chaos. Thus, Fowles discusses chaos in nature, and how the most lovely of scenes is never the most natural. He also makes a valid point that our modern society, with three decades of hindsight added since this was written, has used film and photography to 'show' nature, making the interaction with it less urgent. How often do people seek it out? Is putting a pot of daisies on the patio nature or decor? Do we travel to faraway places to imbibe unique cocktails or are we willing to hike in a forest for no other purpose than to look? Again, he gives no condescending or judgmental answer, he just asks thought provoking questions.
Since the last few years have produced epic and beautiful DVD collections for large screen televisions, like Planet Earth, does nature seem to be something we order up on the Netflix queue or purchase at Costco? It should be noted that this is not a nature 'journal', nor a guide to trees. There are no photos or etchings to illustrate it, and that's appropriate in that Fowles doesn't feel a photograph can replicate nature satisfactorily. I enjoyed this very much, and wish that Fowles would have spent a bit more time discussing his own experiences, as well as suggested ideas for conservation and preservation.
I rec'd this copy from the publisher at no charge; however, this had no relation to the contents of my review.
on January 14, 2014
Outstanding essay on the benefits of letting Mother Nature run wild. Written with his wonderful command of the English language. It is not particularly heavy going, but you must be patient and re-read the occasional passage. But patience is rewarded. It is definitely not a dry appeal for conservation - it goes much deeper than that.
on February 11, 2014
I hope my rating doesn't discourage others from reading this book, because it's personal. I am fascinated by trees and nature, but I suppose I'm not really interested in analyzing my fascination. I just love being in the woods, and feel the most centered and at home while there. I wanted to see if the author felt the same. I see that he does but I'm not interested in comparisons in philosophy about it. People that are will love this book.
on February 26, 2014
In this nonfiction piece, Fowles attempts to describe what he says is impossible to describe, our feelings toward a nature that is unaltered by humans.
Growing up in a London suburb on less than a tenth of an acre, Fowles watched his father constantly debranch and prune five orchard apple trees on their property in order to win local prizes. However, relatives of Fowles aroused in him a passion for natural history and the countryside, leading him to flee his father’s unnatural trees for secret little woods in the Devon-Dorset border country where he discovered a secluded heaven. “That I should have differed so much from my father seems a healthy natural process, just as the branches of a healthy tree do not occupy on another’s territory.”
Fowles does not share his father’s devotion to a single tree but loves complex landscapes of many trees left to themselves. He feels that our obsession with naming and categorizing species distances us from the pure nature of the total forest, like focusing a camera view-finder. He equates naming to collecting since man is a “highly acquisitive creature, brainwashed into believing that the act of acquisition is more enjoyable than the fact of having acquired.” There is a constant need to find new objects and names, and in the case of nature, more species. By identifying a plant or tree, we separate this plant or tree from the natural mixture, like owning it. And miss the experience of the entire growing biological organism.
Take the word “symbiotic” that scientists use to define the relationships between species that produce detectable mutual benefit, but in the unaltered wilderness it is the sum of all its phenomena. This is ignored by scientists because such a large number of interactions is beyond calculation.
One of the book’s constant themes is “nature is an experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art . . . including that of words. This is like trying to capture the uncapturable.”
Although tempting to classify nature as art, Fowles explains “it is not only created, an external object with a history, and so belonging to the past, but also creating in the present, as we experience it.” It refuses to be fossilized in the past by a scientist or artist. Our minds cannot grasp nature as we consider it; we trust only that reported, edited, artistically formulated, or scientifically analyzed. Ultimately, each individual in a moment holds a unique perception of a living copse. What is seen, what is felt, is beyond our languages.
Currently we tend to see woods and forests as they relate to usability: timber, fruit, and landscape beauty. In the past, nature was regarded as a necessary evil, an arboreal wasteland, that area that had to be crossed between towns and cities. Surprisingly, one place close to us, both physically and psychologically, where nature remains detested and feared is the private garden.
Today we have progressed past the island civilizations in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” that had cut down all trees for heat, cooking, shelter, furniture, and agriculture before they realized their culture-ending mistakes. Fowles points out that over half of mankind has moved inside towns and cities. “There is a spiritual corollary to the way we are currently deforesting and denaturing our planet. In the end what we must most defoliate and deprive is ourselves.”
on August 18, 2013
John Fowles is a novelist I have admired since his first novel. This long essay contains some very beautiful writing, particularly from page 67 to the end (91).
The essay is primarily devoted to Fowles' concern that most of us have lost sight of the forest for the tree and the tree for its names and catalogs of its functions. Too often, he argues, we look at Artemisia stelleriana, say, with scientific/intellectual self-satisfaction and neglect to consider the plant contextually. He extends the argument to the "creative arts" railing against those who would suggest novel writing, for example, can be explained as a learned, nearly deterministic undertaking rather than an inspirational process--as he put its, a ramble in the woods, not a walk in the woods on trodden paths.
When reading the essay it may be helpful to notice that it was written 30 years ago, not long after the first Earth Day, and reflects a pessimism about our earth and our highly presumptive belief that we are its custodian for our utility.
Perhaps the best way to convey the thrust of his argument is to read the sublime aforementioned 24 pages and then read the Wikipedia entry on Wistman's Wood with all its facts and figures. Oh, and do not for a moment think that Fowles is anti-intellectual or anti-science, his argument is far more subtle.
Note, this addition does not include the highly regarded photos of the original edition.
on March 25, 2013
It is worth noting that Fowles' influence in writing The Tree was an exhibition he saw of Frank Horvat's nature photography, specifically of trees. I focused much of my doctoral dissertation on this version of The Tree, which blends Horvat's photos with Fowles' prose. As some other reviewers have noted, Fowles' prose brings you closer to nature by stripping it of the names and classifications we use to try, ironically, to know nature. Fowles presents it wild, as it is to those of us who can get beyond the naming--or, better yet, before the naming.
Now here's the real point: Horvat's photography does the same thing beautifully, almost magically. To leaf through the book (no pun intended) page by page, viewing only Horvat's photographs of trees, is to experience the gentle point found in Fowles' prose. Trees are there. We can name them, study them, try to shape them, but they are still just there, as they were before us and as they likely will be after us.
(A later edition pairs Fowles' words with a different photographer, but the magic is gone. Nice photos. Pretty. Well composed. You get the picture - just don't get those pictures; (the edition on this page gets 5-stars for existing - why not? - but you want the original.))
So bravo for the original edition of The Tree and bravo for its blend of Fowles' words with Horvat's pics. Read it. Look at it. Relax your mind and forget all you've ever known about trees. In this way you've got a real shot at getting beyond names to experience what Fowles would call "seeing nature whole." That is, you might actually see a tree - for the first time.
on September 2, 2013
Great idea but a rather boring read. I have read his other books and really enjoyed them so maybe I expected too much. It did not help that my used copy was very heavily annotated and that was distracting.
on December 29, 2012
A most extraordinary, a beautiful and moving book. This, the original edition with the photographs by Frank Horvat is the best and a classic, the close association and feeling in Horvat's images, a sensitivity to the text, is incredible and unfolding, the two together, revealing a depth in the relation of Fowles and his father and trees. These photographs, a page of text with a facing page tree, are not just beautiful or attractive accompaniment. A more recent  version of The Tree combining selections of the text with photographs by William Neill is in the other direction, a portfolio of beautiful, themed studies, packaged attractively with some Fowles to mull on.