restricted access Nature in John Fowles's Daniel Martin and The Tree
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Nature in John Fowles's Daniel Martin and The Tree

In his 1979 book The Tree John Fowles says that "again and again in recent years I have told visiting literary academics that the key to my fiction . . . lies in my relationship with nature" (19).1 He describes the growth of that relationship that began in his father's suburban garden of espaliered and constantly pruned fruit trees. Various relatives, he says, encouraged in him a "longing to escape from those highly unnatural trees in our back garden and all they stood for." "More and more I secretly craved everything our own environment did not possess: space, wilderness, hills, woods . . . I think especially woodland, 'real' trees" (3). During World War Two his family evacuated to a small village in Devonshire (which Fowles says he fictionalized in Daniel Martin), and there he "learnt nature for the first time in a true countryside among true countrymen" (8). He learned there "to shoot and fish. . . . to botanize and birdwatch" (35). In retrospect he says "I spent all my younger life as a more or less orthodox amateur naturalist; as a pseudoscientist, treating nature as some sort of intellectual puzzle, or game, in which being able to name names and explain behaviorism—to identify and to understand machinery constituted all the pleasures and the prizes" [End Page 149] (18). But he became gradually convinced that this approach to nature was inadequate:

naming things is always implicitly categorizing and therefore collecting them, attempting to own them; and because man is a highly acquisitive creature, brainwashed by most modern societies into believing that the act of acquisition is more enjoyable than the fact of having acquired, that getting beats having got, mere names and the objects they are tied to soon become stale. There is a constant need, or compulsion, to seek new objects and names—in the context of nature, new species and experiences. Everyday ones grow mute with familiarity, so known they become unknown.


One of the obstacles to achieving a relationship with nature, Fowles believes, is "our eternal need to use it in some way, to derive some personal yield. We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability" (24).

There is a kind of coldness, I would rather say a stillness, an empty space, at the heart of our forced co-existence with all the other species of the planet. Richard Jeffries coined a word for it: the ultra-humanity of all that is not man . . . not with us or against us, but outside and beyond us, truly alien. It may sound paradoxical, but we shall not cease to be alienated—by our knowledge, by our greed, by our vanity—from nature until we grant it its unconscious alienation from us.


In Daniel Martin all these ideas about nature are embodied either in Martin himself or in other characters. The first sentence of the novel reads "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation" (1), and the movement of the novel is toward that whole sight. Various ways of looking at nature in the novel represent partial visions. Martin's father is very like Fowles's own father as he describes him in The Tree. They both had a mania for gardening and took pride especially in their espaliered and cordoned fruit trees. For both men the garden was an emblem of order and control. Martin sees that his father, an Anglican priest, "drew some analogy between horticulture and God watching over a world; in nature things happened behind your back, could not be supervised and controlled" (82). Fowles describes his own father as fascinated by philosophy, which was "essentially . . . no more than a facet of his hatred of natural disorder. Good philosophers prune the chaos of reality and train it into fixed shapes, thereby forcing it to yield valuable and delicious fruit" (11). In the novel the character Anthony, first a philosophy student and then a don at Oxford, develops that aspect of Fowles's father, and indeed Martin realizes long after their Oxford years that Anthony "was a kind of...