The Wisdom of Trees

Book Review: John Fowles, The Tree (Little, Toller 2016)

61g+LIn61VLJohn Fowles’ book The Tree is unlike any other book on trees I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a few recently). It is also a very beautiful book, with beautiful illustrations throughout by Ed Kluz, and an insightful foreword by William Fiennes. There is little scientific jargon here, attempts to describe trees are hedged with awareness of the limitations of language, and really, trees are just a starting point for what is really a long essay on human nature, society, art, and many other things. Trees, Fowles implies, can tell us everything we need to know – and nothing. That is why they are worth paying attention to. The book opens with the well-tended, domestic trees of Fowles’ father’s orchard, and moves through many wonderful digressions to conclude with the otherness and wildness of Wistman’s Wood:

fairy-like… teeming, jewel-like, self-involved, rich in secrets just below the threshold of our adult human senses. … all words miss, I know I cannot describe it.

Fowles makes some fairly contentious statements along the way, but the more I turn them over in my mind, the more sense they seem to make. He discusses how the Linnaean system of classifying organisms may have damaged our relationship with nature: the desire to own something, tame it and control it by naming, has deadened us to the thrill of not-knowing, the just-being.

These question-boundaries (where do I file that?) are ours, not of reality. We are led to them, caged by them not only culturally and intellectually, but quite physically, by the restlessness of our eyes and their limited field and acuity of vision.

20160402_110433He describes later in the book the finding of a coveted plant specimen, and realising that he has measured and noted and photographed it, but was so much the collector that he couldn’t really see it. There is a smug pleasure in identifying every tree on a stroll, of course, but Fowles has made me wonder whether we should think less about facts, and more about our relationship with trees. How we respond to nature tells us more about ourselves, then, than it does about nature: all the research in the world won’t change the oak, but your silent contemplation of the tree might just change you. There is a mystery in nature which is, Fowles suggests, particularly significant in trees:

I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.

Likewise, he strongly states that to look for measurable benefits in our relationship with nature is to misunderstand the world around us. It has become ingrained in our society to look for measurable, tangible benefits in everything: what is the financial value of the bumblebee? What is the social significance of dandelions? Such approaches are 20160402_110833becoming necessary as we try to find ways to protect our natural world, but the monetised, jargonistic language used is off-putting. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that trees are good for us, and that time spent in their company has many health benefits, both physical and emotional. Recent research supports this, indicating that mental health can be improved by time spent outside. An article entitled ‘What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis’ in Environmental Science & Technology (2010) argues that:

Ecosystems provide important services driven by provisioning, regulation, and support functions. It is clear they also provide a health service arising from direct activities in contact with nature. Recognition of the potential contribution of natural ecosystems to human population health may contribute to addressing problems associated with inactivity, obesity, mental ill-health, and other chronic diseases.

Evidence shows that exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, whether a view of nature from a window, being within natural places, or exercising in these environments.

I don’t disagree, exactly, but I find the language of this and many other similar articles anachronistic. Of course, the authors are using the language of those who need to be convinced of the benefits, because if nature isn’t worthwhile to humans, it risks being eradicated (as if we could!) Fowles is well aware of the inability of language – even in the hands of a novelist like himself – to truly describe encounters with nature, but it is the language of utility which seems to destroy something:

To see woods and forests merely scientifically, economically, topographically or aesthetically, not to understand that their greatest utility lies not in the facts derivable from them, or in their timber and fruit, or their landscape charm, or their utility as subject matter for the artist, all this proves the gathering speed with which we are retreating into outer space from all other life on this planet.

20170325_114220_1493756467417_resizedNature is not there for our benefit, nor us for nature: it is a matter of peacefully co-existing and for humans, as sentient beings, to learn from trees – and they have wisdom to impart, as Fowles suggests. What we should do is retreat to the forest, the ‘green chaos’, not in expectation of any personal gain, but for the sake of the trees themselves, and this is something we can only experience individually. Fowles concludes:

It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened world, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality.

Collecting tree stories for the Tree Charter, I’ve seen so many people’s stories of what 20170402_115122_1493756020795_resizedtrees mean to them, and few of them are about classifying, or explicitly about what they ‘expect’ from trees. Rather, people write in their own way about how the beauty of a tree moves them, how trees console them in grief, or entertained them in childhood. Language may be imperfect for describing trees – we have no real arboreal terms of reference – but the experiences mediated through people’s own words are moving and genuine. And we do have a duty to protect trees, I think, from those whose sights are set more on profit than on wilderness, so please consider reading the Tree Charter Principles and signing the Charter.

The Wind & Trees by John Clare

I love the song of tree and wind
How beautiful they sing
The licken on the beach tree rind
E’en beats the flowers of spring

From the southwest sugh sugh it comes
Then whizes round in pleasant hums

It sings the spirit of the storm
The trees with dancing waxes warm
They dance and bow, and dance again
The very trunks, each branch and grain

Shake and dance and wave and bow
In every form no matter how

In every storm they dance on high
The semblance of a stormy sky
Then sob and roar and bend and swee
The semblance of a stormy sea

I love the song of wood and wind
The sobs before its roar behind

I love the stir of flood and tree
‘Tis all of natures melody
I love the roaring of the wind
The calm that follows cheers the mind

‘Tis like the good mans end of peace
When joys begin and troubles cease

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Clouds

Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:
The_Empire_of_Light_MOMA

Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

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Ancient Landscapes, Pastoral Visions

This exhibition, at Falmouth Art Gallery, was curated by Anne Anderson, whose work on the Brotherhood of Ruralists has recently caught my attention. This exhibition features Samuel Palmer, who in the 1820s turned his back on London and the urban scene to consider the countryside instead, surrounded by ‘The Ancients’, likeminded painters with a “back to nature” ethic. As the exhibition blurb points out, in the 1920s the painter Graham Sutherland did something similar, and in 1975 the Brotherhood of Ruralists (a name with a self-conscious echo of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) did something similar, retiring to Bodmin to paint, as did the PRB, “truth to nature”.
This exhibition combines the work of all of these painters, together with some wonderful Blake etchings. Indeed, Sutherland’s “Pastoral” (1930) is an etching which is remarkably resonant of Blake, in which the trees appear as if they could at any moment reincarnate themselves as monsters – the Gothic menace of nature is all around in this exhibition, whether more obviously, such as in Sutherland’s “Green Tree Form” (1940), left, where the tree seems to have an animal life, or hidden in the pastel fantasy of Graham Ovenden’s “Spring Morning, Wiltshire” (1984).
I was particularly taken with Robin Tanner’s “Christmas 1929”, a wintry village scene which manages to be both homely, familiar and comforting, and sinister, as though menace lurks in the rural hamlet. Indeed, there is a fairytale aspect to many of these paintings and drawings – perhaps when people concentrate on nature to such an extent, it becomes something quite other than what we first think it is. And the idea that nature is pastoral, calm, and even our right to appreciate, is one of town-dwellers, I suspect – “Nature red in tooth and claw” is much more the real thing.
Sir Peter Blake, acolyte of the Ruralists, only features once, with a print entitled “Faery”, which is simply a long-haired, naked girl in a field, but again there is something unsettling about this child apparently at one with nature – something in her eyes or stance, perhaps.
The common thread here is the engagement with the rural landscape, but it is a very mixed collection: many of the exhibits are very much of their time, displaying contemporary influences, and while some have a photographic precision (such as most of Graham Ovenden’s works), others seem largely representative (Paul Nash’s “Druid Landscape”, for example), and others more impressionistic. But there is much here to admire, and much to think about.

Cezanne at the Courtauld

Somehow I’d kind of forgotten about Cezanne until I went to the Courtauld on Monday (tip: free before 2pm on Mondays). The Cezannes were familiar to me, since I studied there (briefly, ten years ago) but somehow Cezanne seems so refreshingly new every time you look at those fresh greens and blues. Apart from the Montaigne Sainte Victoire, which I find strangely bleak. Anyway, this exhibition has letters from Cezanne talking about his art, how he works, and so on, and the collection of his works – paintings and drawings – alongside his words is both revealing and appealing.
Lac D’Annecy is wonderful – somehow Gothic and geometric, representative and realistic simultaneously. The notice adds that this view from the French border of Switzerland was painted by “young lady travellers”, but Cezanne turns it into something quite different, and far removed from the delicate watercolours of a nineteenth-century young lady’s album. For me this was the central piece of the exhibition (others would certainly disagree!) but what he painted was, as he said, “a harmony parallel to nature”. I like the musical analogy; it isn’t nature, but it’s in harmony with it. Surely that’s what art should be – after all, not only is it not the real thing, it both can’t be and shouldn’t be. This painting is Cezanne’s own idiosyncratic take on nature, and a harmony is exactly what it is.