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the nature of nature

In one of his last essays, 'The Nature of Nature' (1995), John Fowles returned to the theme of 'The Tree', the importance of nature in his life and work, as well as for all humanity, to remind them of their own nature.

Fowles recommends reading this "tangled nest of memories and thoughts" in association with 'The Tree', and this indeed makes his dense, free-flowing prose easier to follow. For he covers a lot of ground here, ranging from a re-evaluation of 'The Two Cultures' debate - the hostility between science and the humanities, and between what he calls the two modes of knowing and feeling - to a discussion of the cosmic forces he sees as governing our existence: sideros, keraunos, eleutheria, or "iron necessity, lightning hazard, freedom". (Familiar concepts for readers of 'The Magus', whose working title was 'The Godgame'.)

But central, again, is his attempt to put into words the value of nature, which ultimately lies in the fact that it has no value - and hence might be regarded as a very subtle form of the pathetic fallacy.

As in 'The Tree', Fowles realizes all too well that analysis of his subject threatens to annihilate it, somewhat like the act of observation in quantum physics. Or as Virginia Woolf summed up the problem in her novel 'Orlando':

Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.

In spite of this, and defiantly so, a highlight of the essay is his description of "beingness, existingness", of the essential equivalence of nature and our own nature. It represents the culmination of a patient, wandering exploration - of nature, in letters - started in 'The Tree'. Describing a period of convalescence after a stroke, Fowles writes:

What has struck me about the acutely rich sensation of beingness is how fleeting is its apprehension. It's almost as transient, as fugitive, as some particles in atomic physics: the more you would capture it, the less likely that you will. It refuses all attempts at willed or conscious evocation, it is deaf to pure intelligence alone, it envelops you in a double or twinned feeling. One is of intense nowness, the other of realizing that you (oneself) alone, in your individuality, are infinitely fortunate to experience it, perhaps in nothing so much as its seeming to fall from something whole and unindividual on your separateness. It is being, being, being ... a perpetual miracle, so vivid and vital that ordinarily we cannot bear it; always rare enough to be a shock, no similes or metaphors can convey it; like a sudden nakedness, a knowing of oneself laid bare before a different reality.

(Note the frequency of paradox - "no similes... like", "perpetual... rare", "envelops... nakedness", "a feeling... a knowing" - which is perhaps the best defense letters can mount against being torn to pieces...)

'The Nature of Nature' can be found in the essay collection 'Wormholes'. It is also included in some editions of 'The Tree'.

the tree

...an experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art... including that of words.

In his long essay 'The Tree' (1979), John Fowles attempts to describe something for which by his own admission he has no words: his experience of nature, of wilderness, and specifically of woods and trees. It is a sensory experience that can't be reduced to anything else, or reproduced in images or words. It only exists in the immediacy of the experience, always more than the sum of its perceived parts. It might be compared to the experience of art, both for the artist and the audience, though as Fowles notes, art is made, it is an artefact, while nature remakes itself continuously, fleetingly and impossible to capture in artefact.

In contrast to this kind of experience stands our modern, and in Fowles' view overly dominant habit of definition, classification and scientific explanation. Everything must have its use and purpose - while the essence of nature, and of art, lies precisely in its uselessness. Fowles takes this a step further by stating that in our modern world man, too, must have his use and purpose, even if the deepest - and most confusing - experience of being human is more akin to the "green chaos" of a wood.

It's certainly a relevant theme in an age that has made economic utility a supreme virtue, and which finds lovers of both nature and art at a loss to defend the value of the 'useless'. Fowles develops timeless arguments against this trend, making 'The Tree' a thoughtful manifesto for the intrinsic value of nature and wilderness.

Fowles is best known for his novels, including 'The Collector' (1963), 'The Magus' (1966) and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969), which have been characterized as the link between Thomas Hardy and David Mitchell. But when it comes to the role of nature and landscape in his work, he seems to be closer to the 19th than 21st century English novelists. In 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', for instance, the lush jungle of the Undercliff at Lyme Regis, where Fowles long had his home, plays a crucial role as a sanctuary for tightly corseted Victorians. The stark and cruel landscape of a Greek island in 'The Magus' is equally important in evoking a mythical atmosphere for its trickster plot.

'The Tree' culminates in a description of the mysterious Wistman's Wood, hidden in a valley of the barren Dartmoor, with its strange, twisted, moss-draped dwarf oaks. These fairytalish trees also aptly symbolize 'The Tree' itself, where Fowles doesn't proceed linearly but his prose is searching, tentative and patiently exploring an environment that shrugs off interpretation. Of woods he writes:

Nowhere are the two great contemporary modes of reproducing reality, the word and the camera, more at a loss; less able to capture the sound (or soundlessness) and the scents, the temperatures and moods, the all-roundness, the different levels of being in the vertical ascent from ground to tree-top, in the range of different forms of life and the subtlety of their inter-relationships. In a way woods are like the sea, sensorially far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured. They defeat view-finder, drawing-paper, canvas, they cannot be framed; and words are as futile, hopelessly too laborious and used to capture reality.

Along the way Fowles discusses many other trees, both autobiographical - like his father's closely pruned fruit trees and the neatly classified garden of Carl Linnaeus - and cultural, drawing from the woods in English mythology and folklore and tracing the development of natural, realistic representation in painting. And he uses woods as a metaphor for the creative, meaning-producing processes that take place in our subconscious minds, and which writers and artists attempt to report on.

Anticipating his later essay 'The Nature of Nature' (1995), where he would revisit the dichotomy between science and nature, knowing and feeling, words and experience, Fowles describes what is both the experience of nature and the nature of experience.

There is something in the nature of nature, in its presentness, its seeming transience, its creative ferment and hidden potential, that corresponds very closely with the wild, or green man, in our psyches; and it is a something that disappears as soon as it is relegated to an automatic pastness, a status of merely classifiable thing, image taken then. 'Thing' and 'then' attract each other. If it is a thing, it was then; if it was then, it is a thing. We lack trust in the present, this moment, this actual seeing, because our culture tells us to trust only the reported back, the publicly framed, the edited, the thing set in the clearly artistic or the clearly scientific angle of perspective.

This notion of our "trust(ing) only the reported back" curiously fits our current age of media saturation and vicarious screen experiences. In fact, one area where this preoccupation with "the publicly framed" reveals itself is in nature, which these days tends to include signs, or screens, identifying it as nature and explaining its uniqueness. And of course many of its visitors can be seen carrying a small screen to guide their every step.

But as Fowles reminds us, this habit of reducing everything to a "merely classifiable thing" - conveniently shrunk to fit on our screens - makes us imperceptive of the unclassifiable immediacy of nature.

One of the deepest lessons we have to learn is that nature, of its nature, resists this. It waits to be seen otherwise, in its individual presentness and from our individual presentness.

loophole for all

If you ever need to do some offshoring - and as homo calculus inc. you know you'd better - 'Loophole for All' by Italian artist Paolo Cirio makes this available as a cheap, easy and pretty much legal service.

Loophole for All is a service to democratize offshore business for people who don't want to pay for their riches. It empowers everyone to evade taxes, hide money and debt, and get away with anything by stealing the identities of real offshore companies.

As in earlier projects, Cirio throws light on one of the more pernicious problems of our time by hijacking a failing system, following its globalized, neoliberal logic ad absurdum.

In this case, multinational companies paying little or no taxes by using elaborate offshore constructions (along with, say, a double Irish with a Dutch sandwich) are the root cause of many current problems, including starved governments, improbable politics and growing inequality, both in developing and developed countries. Ultimately, its unfairness - and seeming insolubility - can be viewed as a symptom of liquid modernity and the rapid evaporation of power from nation states into the global unaccountable cloud.

Anyway, here are '10 reasons we should tax corporations', some more reasons and a sensible solution. The 'Loophole for All' website also collects a wealth of info and statistics.

'Loophole for All' is part of 'The Value of Nothing' at Tent, Rotterdam.