The Tree

THE ENGLISH NOVELIST John Fowles had a father who was a fine pruner; the apple and pear trees on his tiny suburban lot were “cunningly stunted,” “highly unnatural,” and “crimped and cramped.” They produced exemplary fruit. Fowles’s father pursued philosophical arguments to a similar end: “Good philosophers prune the chaos of reality and train it into fixed shapes, thereby forcing it to yield valuable and delicious fruit . . .”

Fowles himself was no pruner; he let his trees run wild and loved them not for their products but for their chaos, life, and greenness, for how they provided a hideaway for owlets. Though he acknowledges that his father’s apples and pears were sublime and that his own literary imagination might be a fruit of his father’s pruning (“nine-tenths of all artistic creation derives its basic energy from the engine of repression and sublimation”), his book-length essay The Tree, now back in print for its thirtieth anniversary, is mainly an apology for “green chaos.” The world is getting to be quite pruned, as is the soul.

One way of pruning something is to classify it. Linnaeus, “the great warehouse clerk and indexer of nature,” initiated the category craze that started with flowering plants and spread to everything else:

Our approach to art, as to nature, has become increasingly scientized . . . It sometimes seems now as if it is principally there not for itself but to provide material for labeling, classifying, analyzing — specimens for ‘setting,’ as I used to set moths and butterflies.

Art and literature and love and consciousness — we offer them all up to scientific classification and professional explanation, which isolate a few explainable elements and ignore the rest.

When asked to explain his novels — he wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman among others — Fowles would refer not to “literary influences and theories of fiction, all the rest of that purely intellectual midden which faculty hens and cocks so like scratching over,” but to his relationship with nature: “I do not plan my fiction any more than I normally plan woodland walks; I follow the path that seems most promising at any given point, not some itinerary decided before entry.” He must have approached his nonfiction in the same way; as an apology, this is rather associative — our preference for crimping and cramping over natural vitality is variously blamed on Linnaeus, commerce, Christianity, movie cameras, names, and the medieval mentality, but if sometimes his swerves lost me, they lost me in a fertile place.

He admits that the pruners are in ascendancy, that almost everyone sides with his father these days. Perhaps that is because everyone involved in the conversation belongs to one species — the fittest species. And how did we become so superfit, except by stunting the world to our own advantage? It is pleasant to perform horticulture, to wrest perfect pears from the trees and lucidly French philosophies from our confusing experience. But what about the owlets and the waxwings? Only if we let our terrain go wanton and brambly, full of leafy secret confusion, might we be visited by rare birds.