Tag Archives: essays

The Tree — John Fowles

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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

Good Bones and Simple Murders — Margaret Atwood

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Good Bones and Simple Murders is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s—umm—short bits? Mini-stories? Musings on our twisted society? Whatever it is, it’s amusing, witty, brilliant as the author and, incidentally, illustrated by her, as if you weren’t already impressed with the poetry, fiction and journalism Atwood turns out, seemingly on cue.

The bits hit on many of Atwood’s themes and spare none of the comfortable clichés of literature or life. “The Female Body” explores the fragile imperfect thing a body is, a light-up see-through anatomical model, the culturally determined accessories required for the social display of the female body and, finally, that queen of accessories, the doll herself—giant boobs, teeny waist, pointy little feet, long legs, no cellulite, and bouncy vinyl hair, probably blond. What a small girl can do to a Barbie doll is a sadistic and very satisfying thing. Read all about it.

“Poppies” is a creative writing exercise–she calls it “variations”–that uses the lines from “In Flanders Fields” to inspire a series of anti-war texts. But that oversimplifies. Atwood describes history, aftermath, toy soldiers, male violence, fearful women and an arsenal’s worth of topics that circle around her point before they explode—with those words from the poem italicized in case you failed to catch the clever trick.

“Gertrude Talks Back” gives the queen some centerstage that Shakespeare never scripted. She would have called Hamlet ‘George,” thinks he ought to get himself laid and find a real girlfriend, not the bordeline Ophelia, puts the Prince of Denmark straight about sex, booze and his frigid, abstemious father. Atwood’s Gertrude is drying her nails, not wringing her hands, not the least bit angsty, entirely unapologetic. The angst he must have gotten from his father.   

In “There Was Once,” Atwood deconstructs a fairy tale with some combination of political correctness and obsessive editing until the story becomes untellable. In the title story, she deconstructs bones—the lacy bones of the old, the high cheekbones of the young and a cemetery full of good and bad bones mixed with some thoughts about calcium and mortality. In “Hardball,” she creates a horrible post-apocalyptic world where the rich live on the top deck with access to pink strawberries and pale yellow carrots. Severe shortage of real estate for agriculture, human habitation and corpse disposal but pretty good protein when a baby is born and someone is selected for the meat grinder. Is it recycling or a demented form of composting? We may soon find out.

Good Bones is very entertaining and very brainy and both fun and not-so-funny at the same time. I read it on the subway en route to a client meeting downtown. I read it on the way home, subway again. I changed trains twice going down and once coming back. It’s a good book to read on the subway. Oh, and the illustrations aren’t bad—probably better than you could do.

Good Bones and Simple Murders   Margaret Atwood   Doubleday  1994