John Fowles, The Tree, 1979 –– “three things about nature.”
“One is that knowing it fully is an art as well as a science.
The second is that the heart of this art lies in our own personal nature and its relationship to other nature; never in nature as a collection of ‘things’ outside us.
The last is that this kind of knowledge, or relationship, is not reproducible by any other means – by painting, by photography, by words, by science itself.”
A deep connection with the natural world develops through time, through an interaction with the non-human that encompasses more than observation. Spectating cannot create this relationship; rather it comes into being through a process of embedding one’s self within something larger. John Fowles has created such a relationship for he knows it cannot be contained within words or reproduced outside of its own existence.
Last week, I found the carcass of a young moose. There was hair scattered in clumps, the lower jawbone, and a leg with a hoof. That was all. It died in April, creating a stir of activity as bears, wolves, eagles, and other meat-eaters reduced it to nothing but clumps of hide and a few bones. I had seen the tracks, and knew they were evidence that death lay up that valley (see Tracking). Now, I had found it. I spent time at the kill site, standing amidst the cycles of life and the harshness of death. The remains lay where the valley narrowed, at a point filled with down timber. The snow would have been deep, the moose hampered by the fallen trees. The animal was young, its teeth still sharp after only a few years of use. Bits of flesh along the line where molars met jawbone made the creatures existence tangibly real. Deep silence settled in, a stillness. The minimal remains held a beauty of transformation.
Why do I tell you this? Because I cannot tell you. I cannot reproduce the place that I entered while at the kill site. It was not a physical place, but a knowing, a part of the on-going relationship that cannot be put into words.
Sometimes I’ll read somebody’s writing and think, “ah… they have been there.” Not because they described “there” directly; rather, their voice echoes with it. We allude to that place, that relationship, and write circles around it. But there is no reproducing it.
Fowles words resonated with me even more deeply because I read The Tree after I wrote “Ekphrasis and the Writer’s Challenge” – the challenge I spoke of being to write ‘in such a way that the landscape takes on all the dimensions that make it alive; to evoke the beauty and complexity that lies within the “scape” and make it real.’ It seems that in the end, capturing all dimensions – for that includes our connection with the natural world – is not possible.
Yet, the kicker is, as Barry Lopez suggests in his introduction to The Tree, that there are politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople making decisions that deeply affect the natural world and the non-human species that depend on it – people who may not have cultivated any kind of relationship to the natural environment at all. So, as Lopez states, “many within the broad compass of the environmental movement today are still charged… with explaining that which requires no explanation and which in fact cannot be explained.”
And so the Writer’s Challenge stands.