A few months ago, in the lush green of North Carolina where the Pisgah National Forest meets the Blue Ridge Mountains, I ignored a herd of no-trespassing signs and—encouraged by my college-age son, who had done this trek before (and in several feet of snow)—I scaled a padlocked farm gate flanked by barbed wire fencing to explore someone’s private mountain.
It was a steep hike and I wasn’t sure I could make it. The mountain’s elevation is over 5,500 feet. There were no trail markers, but we followed lightly used paths through a breezy meadow of undulating wildflowers, made our way through damp hardwood forest shimmering with dense and comforting foliage, and hoisted ourselves up over massive rocks dotting an alpine pasture.
We picked and ate wild blackberries along the way and wondered at the gnarled, dwarfed apple trees, not part of an abandoned orchard but growing here and there, willy nilly. Once, we were startled by quail, flushed out of hiding by our movement. Our physical destination was the summit, from which there is a 360-degree view of the forests below, arboreal citizens of the lesser mountains. The motive for our journey was simple: my son wanted to share with me a cherished place where he could just “be” in nature.
The world has changed a great deal in the thirty years since the original publication of John Fowles’ book The Tree (HarperCollins, $13.99), a beautifully honed plea for us to “be” in the natural world, to seek human creativity through the wild. It was written before the World Wide Web compromised our solitude, before Al Gore made global warming a top ten topic, before HDTV brought naturalists’ most obscure obsessions into the comfort of our homes.
A classic recently brought back into print, this part memoir/part meditation is an excursion that begins in Fowles’ father’s maniacally pruned suburban English garden, continues through the author’s own personal indebtedness to the chaos of the natural world, and brings us finally to his deeply felt communion with the primeval Wistman’s Wood at Dartmoor in the south of England. Fowles’ gift in descriptive language (he is a fiction writer, best known for The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and his wide knowledge of natural science ease his more abstract notions, making this a particularly enjoyable read.
Fowles cherishes the tree, and then reasonably, the woods (as he says, “evolution did not intend trees to grow singly”), because the forest is uncapturable in its true form either in art or in words. And so it is our required presence there that binds us to the wilderness. The only way to understand ourselves, he says, is to be a present being in the natural world, “only by the living senses and consciousness.”
Beyond the tree and beyond the woods, Fowles challenges us to embrace the unpredictable, the untamable, the unquantifiable. For it is from that nameless, numberless chaos that human creativity emerges. Fowles says, “It [nature] can be known and entered only by each, and in its now; not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself. We still have this to learn: the inalienable otherness of each, human and non-human, which may seem the prison of each, but is at heart, in the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, both the justification and the redemption.”