For Christmas in my last year of high school, my boyfriend gave me a bright yellow sweatshirt that proclaimed me "President of the John Fowles Fan Club." The movie version of The French Lieutenant's Woman (with a young Meryl Streep)
had just come out and I read the novel at the suggestion of my English teacher, Mr. Lyles. I loved it of course, and The Magus, The Collector, Daniel Martin and all the other Fowles novels in the Calgary public libraries helped me pass the time until my longed-for escape to university.
So I was delighted when Madge brought me a copy of Fowles' book-length essay, The Tree, as a souvenir of her recent visit to the splendid gardens at the Getty Museum while she was on tour in L.A. First published in 1979, this book was a powerful salvo in the burgeoning environmental movement. On the back cover, W.S. Merwin says "For years I have carried this book with me," and the new 2010 edition has an introduction by Barry Lopez.
The book is a startlingly radical philosophical defense of wildness. It condemns all forms of human shaping of nature as a violation--not only of other natural beings, including Fowles' beloved trees, but ultimately of the wildness in ourselves. For Fowles, our desire to subdue nature is a rejection of our own kinship with it, our own wildness, a process of abjection (though he does not use this term) in which we defensively externalize and punish our own status as part of nature. This gesture, the original othering, occurs "not only in non-human nature: ony fools think our attitude to our fellow-men is a thing distinct from our attitude to `lesser' life on this planet." For Fowles, the term "to garden" means "to enslave."
At the end of the essay, Fowles tells that despite these explanations he has no theories, only experiences "as dense and ravelled" as the woods he loves. "I know I came to writing through nature, or exile from it, far more than by innate gift," he writes, and there finds "such inturned peace, such profound harmlessness, otherness, selflessness, such unusing....all words miss, I know I cannot describe it."
Don't miss these words.