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

Exhibition review: Paul Nash

angel-and-devilI was very pleased to be able to catch the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain last week (it closes March 5th), and I took 11 pages of notes, so this post will be an attempt to condense my ideas into some form of review! Nash (1889-1946) is not, I think, as appreciated as he should be (in my circles, anyway!) but his deep and sustained involvement in a movements, events and exhibitions throughout the early twentieth century, particularly in his surrealist later work, is demonstrated beautifully in this large exhibition.

The opening room is entitled ‘Dreaming Trees’, and indeed trees feature throughout much of his early and mid-career work, in different forms. I hadn’t been aware of the strong influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Blake on Nash’s work, but some early examples of his illustrations clearly three-treesindicate this, such as ‘The Combat’ and ‘Our Lady of Inspiration’. Nash also on occasion wrote his own poetry to accompany his work. His engagement with landscape, and trees in particular, is accompanied by his unusual approach; he ‘tried to paint trees as though they were human beings’, looking for the character and individuality of plant forms, as a part of his attempts to explore the locus genii which preoccupies his work throughout his life. Moving beyond conventional landscapes, he wrote that

my love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of natural appearances into surreal worlds…

I particularly liked the almost-human trees in ‘The Three Trees’, which appear in many of his paintings and were inspired by the trees near his family house. Their personality appears, and in the range of paintings of trees including these it is possible to see how he became more drawn to the drama and mysticism of the natural world: the exhibition label says that he

lived the drama of the nocturnal skies – falling stars, moonrise, storms and summer lightning.

new-world

The works on display indicate the extent to which Nash links the natural world with creativity, but other worlds intrude; after his war experiences, his paintings often still include trees, but they are different, an attempt to drag order from chaos, forms from formlessness. His movement towards surrealism is marked, at the start, by a formal, structured beauty which tries to make sense of a changing world, but at the edges there is an untamed wildness, and an acknowledgement that the relationship between humanity and nature is an unequal one, where the balance varies. The section ‘We Are Making a New World’, named after one of his most famous war paintings, exemplifies this: he described himself as ‘no longer an artist’ but ‘a messenger’, using simplified forms, such as stunted trees and devastated landscapes, to demonstrate the destructiveness of war (here, again, the trees seem to stand in for people). Yet in several of the paintings, such as ‘Spring in the Trenches’, nature reassert itself after the damage that war has inflicted: nature is always stronger, in the end, though the soldiers in the trenches are blind to its beauty.

spring-in-the-trenches

The landscapes become more and more angular and geometric; they indicate a world which continues to change, where humanity seems increasingly reckless in its treatment of the environment. In a series of paintings with red clouds it is difficult to tell if nature is in sympathy, or angry with a world bent on destruction. In ‘The Menin Road’ the landscape has become entirely subject to form, with even the sky appearing unnatural, and the vicious vertical lines of the blasted trees standing in for the ruined lives of soldiers.

Later sections demonstrate Nash’s attachment to place, as well as his interest in ancient monolithshistorical sites such as Whiteleaf Cross. This might be read as an escape from the troubling present, but it is human interventions in and reshaping of landscape that seems to draw him here. Increasingly his paintings veer towards abstraction, with forms placed in the landscape – which he continued to do for the rest of his life – and with works such as ‘Winter Sea’ constructing a geometric abstraction from nature. His paintings which seem to show nature framed, shaped and controlled by humanity, such as ‘Month of March’, often show a branch out of place, or some small sign that nature is still in charge.

In the 1930s his work undergoes further shifts, especially in his interest in still lifes and indoor paintings which demonstrate his increasing use of form and shape to structure his works. These invite questions; ‘St Pancras’, for example, with its slightly disorientating perspective, pits verticals against horizontals, curves against straight lines, so that the viewer’s eye is confused once it moves beyond the vase in the foreground, and we watch as if looking through the window ourselves. His exploration of shape in the world is extrapolated further in ‘Dead Spring’ and ‘Lares’, in which the latter abstracts the shapes of the former. Other still-life/abstract works draw in found objects, such as glove stretchers repurposed as sculptural trees; there are several tree-related works which both echo his earlier paintings and indicate how far his work has moved on, particularly under the influence of surrealism.

Nash writes of landscapes:

They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.

Exploring his own vision of landscape allows him to see differently, and even manmade objects seem to form landscapes in his works. ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ is one of his most famous paintings, and indicates his ability to combine landscape and form in unexpected juxtapositions; the stylised landscape of the background is populated by forms which stand in for the megaliths so that what is man made becomes a very different part of the view. There are also photographs; ‘Monster Field’ is an image of elms struck by lightning which take in both the appearance and the personality of monsters.

monster-field

With the advent of WWII, Nash painted crashed German bombers, and in a number of paintings indicates the threat which comes from the sky during war, sometimes with the red clouds which appeared in his previous war paintings. Towards the end of his life, his work is lighter in colour, exploring cycles of change, life and death, which is apparent both in his works with sunflowers, and also in his essay ‘Aerial Flowers’. Again he turns to the natural world to understand the incomprehensible, exploring varied landscapes to create his unique vision. There is an appealing circularity in this return to the land.

Trees and why we need them

charter-logoOn November 6th 1217, Henry III issued his Charter of the Forest. A companion document to Magna Carta, it indicates how important forests were in this heavily-wooded land (though in this context, ‘forest’ could also mean fields and other land which did not contain buildings). The Charter relaxed the laws around forests, opening them up to the people, permitting access to land which previously had required royal permissions, and removing the death penalty for poaching. Today, we have ‘right to roam’ and take the countryside for granted, but as you no doubt know, much ancient woodland is under threat – from development, from pests, and from poor management. Consequently, 800 years later, the Charter for Trees, Woods and People, led by the Woodland Trust and supported by over 50 other organisations is being created, but this Charter is from the ground up; rather than an edict from above, the Tree Charter is asking everyone who cares about trees to contribute. They would like to know what trees mean to you: this can be a sentence or two (or more), a photograph or video, which captures why trees are important, or a memory you have of trees, or your favourite tree. Or you could think about what you do in the woods – walk, play, build dens, walk dogs, gather berries and nuts? As a social media ‘champion’ for the Tree Charter, I’m collecting tree stories, so please, have a look at the Tree Charter website, and contribute; you can comment on this post, contact me, or find me on twitter or instagram (using the hashtag #treecharter).

The Charter will be a public document which will lay out the ways and reasons why people care about trees, and will be used to inform policy, setting out principals for protecting our trees and our responsibilities towards them. These will be revisited annually by organisations in order to keep the welfare of Britain’s trees in mind and to provide a benchmark to adhere to. After all, trees are significant in so many ways: they provide oxygen, they limit carbon dioxide (thus helping climate change), and they provide habitat for wildlife, to name a few practical things. They can also feed us, provide material for crafts, building, fires, paper, etc; and they have other, perhaps deeper significance, too – they show us the changing seasons, and their beauty touches everyone. They have enormous cultural meaning, and there are many ancient myths about trees, folk songs, and poems. In many ways humans identify with trees: when we talk about the cycle of life it is often using tree metaphors, and poets in particular draw on this (see, for example, W B Yeats’s ‘The Two Trees‘, in which love is expressed by way of trees).

It’s one year to go until the launch of the new Charter for Trees, Woods and People! More than 50 organisations, led by the Woodland Trust, are calling for people to speak out about how trees enhance their lives to make the true value of trees to society visible. These ‘tree stories’ will define the new charter, and will become part of an archive that shows the value of trees to people in the UK. Add your voice at https://treecharter.uk/add-your-voice/

We need trees; at the moment, they need us too. Please help!

 

How to Celebrate National Tree Week

I’ve recentIMG_1540.JPGly discovered that it’s National Tree Week from 29th November to 7th December. I’m not usually that keen on things like this which artificially emphasise something, but actually, I think trees are really important (and when I was younger I used to actually hug them, something my toddler is now doing too). And the colours of the trees have been so beautiful this Autumn that they’re good for the soul as well as the planet. The point of Tree Week is that it’s at the start of the winter planting season, and emphasises how much we need trees, as homes for birds and animals, for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen, for the things we can make out of their byproducts, and for the fact that they even help create rainfall. And, of course, they’re beautiful.
Ancient woodlands are not only beautiful, they are historical, and sites of established natural habitats. They are often, as the Woodland Trust emphasises, threatened.
Poetry celebrates many of these aspects of the natural world. Kipling’s poem ‘The Way througIMG_1539.JPGh the Woods’ asks us to think about woods as a historic place, where echoes of the past remain but nature almost obliterates it, keeping its own secrets. A E Housman’s poem about the cherry tree reflects on the passing of time and life as he looks at blossom. And let’s not forget Christmas trees, as ee cummings describes on her poem ‘little tree‘. Finally, there is the magnificent, ancient yew tree of which Wordsworth writes, dwarfing all around them and suggesting a permanency of nature against the temporal humans who see it. Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am Vertical’ (below) shows how trees can even show us more about ourselves.
So in celebration of National Tree Week, and of the beautiful trees which grow in Britain, read a poem about the beauty of trees, hug a tree, scuffle through some fallen leaves, and admire the beauty of an ancient oak. Better still, get involved – find out what local events are running for National Tree Week.

‘I am Vertical’ by Sylvia Plath
…But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleepingIMG_1537.PNG
I must most perfectly resemble them–
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
The the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

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