On a wide swale in the center of a Little Havana side street, a gnarled tree spread its canopy over a motley collection of bright bits and foul garbage around its trunk. The tree stood a little ways down from my bel canto teacher’s rambling house, the neighborhood gone slightly seedy but the voodoo tree an anomaly nonetheless. Residents didn’t approve of it but they kept their distance. I ventured in to catalog the offerings now and again: a chicken head, two yellow feet with bloody stumps, random pennies and the odd silver coin, candle stubs, bits of paper with scribbled writing impossible to decipher, pictures torn from magazines, letters in sealed envelopes, plastic and glass beads, airline liquor bottles, mostly empty.
There was never any paper money under the tree, no headless dolls with pins stuck in them, but always the sense of someone watching, a sour sense of ill-will and desperation. It was Santeria, I learned, the Afro-Cuban animist religion of a poorer class of refugee. Neither I nor, apparently, the city parks department had the temerity to risk any engagement with that tree. I took nothing; I left nothing. The offerings rotted in the shade and sun.
I hadn’t thought of the voodoo tree in years, until something in John Fowles’ hardcover essay The Tree triggered the memory. No idea what that might have been. Fowles’ trees are a loftier sort, more apt to channel Tolkien than some demonic Orisha. But they are powerful beings in his world, symbols for all of nature, the vertical reproach to human alienation.
Fowles wrote this essay in the late seventies with a prescience about the current state of the environment that would be stunning if we hadn’t already known then what we know now. We are destroying ourselves. We are ravaging the planet, barricaded in our cities and living willfully blind. We have forgotten the mysteries of the dark wood, the truth of druids, the significance of a living tree. Science has given us names for the deciduous and the evergreen that can never capture the unnamable things that they are. We no longer believe in magic so magic has fled.
The Tree does not sentimentalize this. It is a cold, clear accounting of how we tame trees, prune them, harvest them, cut them down and make things of them. The tale tells of wandering in a numinous lostness, of forests as metaphors, of writing fiction as blind as owls in daylight, blinking at the blank page, wondering what will come next. Fowles finds solace and revelation in his forests and small copses and isolated stands of birch and oak. He scrambles with us over scraggy slopes and tors of granite and shale to a hidden wood–primeval trees stunted, intertwined and untouched, fraught with silence, alive with ferns, mosses and lichens–sanctuary for birds and old spirits. He tells us his writing is a pale thing next to a tree. That to capture a tree in words is as impossible as reproducing a symphony in a painting.
John Fowles has some glorious fiction to his name: The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, The Aristos. The Tree is an argument for the intuitive, the wisdom conferred only by presence, the acknowledgment that, refusing to see with the heart, we begin to die. Fowles called this encounter with trees, creature to creature, the return to “green chaos.” It is the place he went to find his stories, the wild, still, unpredictable woods that blur the borders between dreaming and waking.
We are losing this mysterious planet we only half-know. We have no name for the spirit in the tree that is our spirit, too, so we classify the tree, cull it or conserve it at will, espalier it, trim it, cultivate it in an arboretum, a tree museum. Maybe we need a return to gifts of chicken feet, copper pennies left in offering, midnight ululations. Maybe we need to sit with trees, walk among them, read at their feet, listen for the slight rustling that signals the beginning of a story, the invitation to green chaos, before it is too late.
The Tree John Fowles | The Ecco Press 1983