'Always the green chaos rather than the printed map' - John Fowles
The Tree, the sea, the Cobb
Last week in Lyme Regis I sought respite from the sweltering heat and hard labour of a sandcastle competition by escaping to The Sanctuary Bookshop, where I bought a copy of the original 1979 edition of John Fowles' The Tree with Frank Horvat's photographs. Horvat is not known primarily as a landscape photographer and his first published books had the unpromising sounding titles, 'J'aime la Télévision' and 'J'aime la Strip-Tease'. But in 1976, he writes, "I emerged from a long period of self-doubt, which had led me to question my very involvement in photography, both as a photo-journalist and as a fashion photographer. I spent part of that summer in my small property in Provence, pruning trees and putting on paper the few memories of my childhood that I could recollect. At some point, I realised that most of my memories were somehow connected with branches and leaves, and this gave me the idea of a photographic essay about trees."
The text John Fowles wrote after seeing Horvat's photographs also begins in childhood, with memories of the fruit trees crammed into his father's suburban garden. But his father's expertise in cultivating specimens and Horvat's predilection for 'the single tree, the tree in itself' are at odds with Fowles' experience that truth lies 'beyond the canopy and exterior wall of leaves, and beyond the individual.' Looking through the book you notice that when Horvat shows trees in combination they have a distinctive formal beauty - the intricate overlapping pattern of bare grey plane tree branches, a group of green poplars arranged like a still life. But Fowles reminds us that real woodland is 'like the sea, sensorily far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured.' He dismisses the paintings of Hobbema as merely 'townscapes composed with trees instead of houses.' Art, of course, has 'no special obligation to be realistic and naturalistic' but its reluctance to see and portray the world's interconnectedness 'is symptomatic of a long and damaging doubt in man.'
Meindert Hobbema, Marshy Woodland, c1660
The book ends with the walk through Wistman's Wood that I've referred to here before. There Fowles experiences the old urge to classify: 'the botanist in me notices a colony of woodrush, like a dark green wheat among the emerald clitter; then the delicate climbing Corydalis claviculata, with its maidenhair-fern leaves and greenish-white flowers.' But he sits down among the silent trees and concludes that such a place cannot be described in language: 'it 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.' More than thirty years later the limits of language are still being discussed and The Tree remains, I think, well worth reading. Barry Lopez, in a recent interview about the book, praises Fowles' understanding of the way 'things are held together': 'When you really immerse yourself in the natural world, no matter how many bird guides or explanations you’ve got about what it is you’re seeing, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And the message is, step into it. Don’t try to define nature. It is not definable or controllable. One of life’s great ecstasies is to step into it.'