On vacation last month I purchased John Fowles excellent book The Tree.  I wasn’t  planning on doing much reading on our trip to the sea, but I can’t resist bookstores and I bit on this one.  It was a skinny book after all, and I was traveling light.  Anyway, I’m nearly done with it now, and it has almost single-handedly swept away my recent mixed opinions about nature writing.   I won’t get into it much (for now) except to say it has nicely punctuated some recent little jaunts, and spurred some thinking about people and nature.

Path #1.  On our way back homeward E and I stopped to gawk at a Carolina lighthouse  where we were nearly carried off by mosquitoes.  Safely back in the car (air conditioned, at that)  we traversed miles of swamps as we made our way west.  We admired the strange beauty of these enormous coastal wetlands and estuaries.  It took a minute or two before we laughed and realized that we could nicely appreciate such landscapes from the comfort of a chilled steel capsule hurtling briskly at sixty miles per.   If we were deposited into said swamps in our shorts and teva sandals we’d be miserable in maybe, hmm, five seconds we reckoned.   Should all swamps be drained?  Well no, but those skeeters sure got me moving.

Path #2.  Over the holiday we went to the Morton Arboretum where we explored the maze,  the kid’s garden, and the Big Rock.   It was a fine day, and the place was packed, especially around the visitor center.   I’m very fond of the Arb, but this was one of those times where it felt more like a trip to the zoo.  I’m not knocking the zoo, but that’s a different, ahem, animal.   Should this experience of nature be packaged thusly – with hot dogs selling (briskly) at ball-park prices?   

Path #3.  Later that day we ventured through the paved paths of Wolf Road Prairie, one of the finest prairie remnants in the state.  One of my favorite haunts, I thought it would make a nice bookend to our visit at the Arb.   Well, a prairie is a prairie, and in short order we were pushing our way through grasses and flowers well over our heads.  It was just uncomfortable.  We were dressed too lightly and we were soon covered with hundreds of burs that made the little hike rushed and unpleasant. Whatever beauty was nearby was dismissed as we labored back out to 31st Street.  We did however gain new respect for whatever peoples ventured into and lived in the real prairies so long ago.    

But back to the book. One of the captivating things about The Tree is how Fowles describes how he and others approach, define and manage the natural world they live in, be it urban or rural.  This book and these recent pathways I have trod have made me think about what my own comfort zone is.   I like to think of myself as a person who is pretty comfortable “in nature”  but my recent bug bites and scratches have at one end reminded me that I should wear long pants on such ventures. And at the other end I may have to face the idea that I may not be as comfortable “in nature” as I imagined I was.  

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Dave Coulter

I have been a horticulturist for thirty years working in the Chicago area and beyond. I have lived in Oak Park for over thirteen years. My writing has recently appeared in the journal Ecological Restoration...