thomas m wilson

The Path and John Fowles

March 29th, 2007

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My interest in conserving and marvelling at global biodiversity and the physical planet has caused me to be more: scientific, optimistic, determined, self-secure and impressed by the world. It has created a path of sorts for me in life.

In 2002 I walked from the West Quantocks Hills in Somerset just under the Bristol channel, with the Exeter University Out of Doors Society, to a small village called Bishops Lydeard. This is when the photograph of the path above was taken. It is also the period of my life when I first met John Fowles.

Fowles was right to insist that you can’t capture the experience of nature in words. Of you can’t capture it with photographs either, which is a salient reminder for myself now that I’m more interested in photography. I remember walking through the trees below Fowles’ house in south-west England, with the wind and the grey light gushing past, leaves swaying and turning, my vision moving as I pass, feelings of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and a man and a place so bound up in nineteenth century notions of refinement.

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My bedroom was inside the main house, a room that makes one think of well lived in certain country mansions of the 20s a bit, not big but cultured and hailing from an England you’d never guess existed still as you walked down today’s British high street with its mobile phone shops and ugly mall. And Baag, the big, burly tabby who has now sadly passed away, padded around the house… it really is true that having cats around reduces one’s level of background anxiety.

I uses to often walk into the Undercliff, a wooded area west of Lyme Regis. I strode forth, across a section of open county and then into the chaotic topography and jumble of trees and plants. The path winds along and one thinks: well, here is a bit of wild England after all. The blood pumped through my body and I felt alert, but when I came to a particularly romantic spot – it all is that, one really gets a sense of the spirit of the place that must have motivated the romanticism of the FLW, as Sarah calls The French Lieutenant’s Woman – I stopped. And the silence came flooding in from all sides, and I stood thinking how much these lush vines and trees and shrubs on such wildly up and down terrain stimulant a sense of mystery, of promises around corners. Thinking how, regardless of how hackneyed a word it is, there really was a magic to this place. Of the kind that Fowles talks of in his notion of la bonne vaux. The place is an entrée into a kind of invitation to dream. After the contrast of recent city or town dwelling it came onto my eyes with a fresh, possibility-filled and timeless charm.

How easily I could be Charles Smithson setting out into this wilderness. Or how easily the fictional Sarah could come walking down Ware Lane. The place varied every second as I trod along the path which winded and bobbed up and down, under trees and around corners. The magic of a Samuel Palmer English valley, which Fowles has written about, I truly got an inckling of. As my walking boots had given out the previous weekend, Sarah gave me a pair of John’s old shoes to have and walk in. I was truly walking in the footsteps of John Fowles.

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Why I Like Edward O. Wilson

March 25th, 2007

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In 2oo2 I was on Reunion Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At the time I wrote in my journal: ‘I have seen the beauty of nature on a tropical island, been fascinated by the workings of the physical world around us, realised that I am part of the biosphere – something much bigger than my personal problems – discovered how pressing is the need to conserve and restore global biodiversity, and found new direction in my life in wanting to help do that.’

When I was on Reunion the place had a 43% unemployment rate, plenty of bad drivers and groups of men drinking rum on the side of the street in the middle of the day. Despite some of the problems on the island, being in a very different cultural framework – the French speaking, Creole eating tropical scene with a little bit of African influence – allowed me to see nature like an alien on another planet. I read E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life for the first time. Wilson and the land both inspired me, and thus this blog entry has to be about both. Wilson’s prose in his book Consilience – which I also read while I was there – put me on a new path, bound up in his broader conservation ethic, to approaching my own life. The tone was amelioristic, in control, optimistic, rational, autonomous, fascinated, and knowledge-hungry.

Reunion is a volcanic cone poking up out of the Indian Ocean. The somewhat undisturbed south-east is called the ‘sud sauvage’, the wild south in English, and it is crested by this constantly unpredictable volcanoe, the Piton Fournaise. This mountain is three thousand metres from the sea to the top. Dribbles of dark lava come down the south-east slope.reunion2.JPG

The interior of the island is sometimes dry, sometimes lush, but nearly always slashed by very deep gorges and outrageously tall mountain peaks. This beach is typical of the island. I don’t love the French habit of leaving cigarette buts everywhere in the sand, but I do love the fact that you can float in a pool at the end of this beach and see the warm colours of live coral beneath you. You can see what a great place it was to be reading about the workings behind the diversification of species of life on earth.

The rivers that flow to the sea carve deep gorges full of icy water holes, like this secret spot…

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So this is the tropical crucible within which I first heard the uplifting and philosophical voice of the greatest prose stylist of modern science. Thanks Edward O. Wilson. Partly because of your writings, everywhere I walk on this earth I feel I belong, as part of the biosphere.

When I returned to Australia in 2003 I was saddened to find that the conservationist figure embodied by E. O. Wilson – the affable, well-mannered southern gentleman with a prodigious intellect and stylish approach – didn’t fit very clearly among Australian Wilderness Society activists and Greenpeace recruits.

Still, I have continued to be influenced by Wilson’s outlook on the world. True, I write about novels, poems, and films, and not about the workings of ecosystems. But some science does inform my environmentally- slanted literary criticism. Most of all, I’m humbled by the complex workings of the species of life on this earth; my cosmology places us humans firmly within this natural realm; and much of my spiritual sustenance comes from the creation. Partly thanks to the tone of the writings of an old Harvard professor, I’m still determined and I’m still impressed.

New Photography Gallery

March 18th, 2007

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Mass of twisting white spirits, frozen in their silent decade-long dance in a clearing of the south-west,

ancient lives towering from the floor to the canopy,

tumbled granite boulders, with a window in the karris out over the land and the southern ocean and the swell’s boom,

clear sight… peace in his heart.

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My new gallery of nature photography can be viewed by following the link on the top right hand side of this page.

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