Posted by: Meghan C | 6th Apr, 2008

Science, Art, and the Human-Nature Relationship:

The Idea of the Green Man in The Tree by John Fowles
and “Marshland Elegy” by Aldo Leopold

          The term “Green Man” refers to the archetype of human oneness with nature and for a wide variety of the archetype’s cultural manifestations (Olshen 96). In The Tree John Fowles criticizes scientists, academics, and, to a lesser degree, artists, who insist on explaining nature by ordering its “green chaos” (603). They “wish to make what is unconscious or partly conscious fully conscious, to use the sacred places for profane ends” (Olshen 105). To Fowles, “the idea that the real, the truly significant, is private and hidden” (Olshen 105), and the Green Man represents in his writing the basic human need for internal and external disorder. He writes, “achieving a relationship with nature is both a science and an art, beyond mere knowledge or mere feeling alone” (599). This theme of a union between science and art is present in a chapter from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac entitled “Marshland Elegy.” Leopold laments the loss of cranes from the drainage of peat bogs in Wisconsin and expresses, “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words” (102). In contrast to Fowles, Leopold employs his scientific knowledge in a style that is not only artistic, but wise; uniting science and art in a sacred ecology that fosters a healthy relationship between humans and nature. Although Fowles and Leopold disagree on the roles of science and art in enhancing the human-nature relationship, both authors impart that nature is beyond the ability of words to capture. While Fowles condemns those who attempt to “defoliate the wicked green man, hunt him out of his trees” (Olshen 105), Leopold calls out to the Green Man to be an ecological diplomat between science and art, between knowledge and beauty, in order to reconcile the disconnection between humans and nature.
          Fowles, a natural history museum curator, ironically presents a pessimistic perspective on the role of science and art in creating a sound relationship between humans and nature. A disapproving tone is employed by the author to caution readers of pitfalls within both disciplines. He argues that humans have been brainwashed by modern societies into believing that acquiring knowledge is more important than having knowledge or using that knowledge wisely (595). This mechanistic, purposive, puritanical legacy from Victorian science to always seek more knowledge “insidiously cast nature as a kind of opponent, an opposite team to be outwitted and beaten… it distracted from the total experience and the total meaning of nature” (594). Indeed, humans are “far better at seeing the immediate advantages of such gains in knowledge of the exterior world than at assessing the costs of them” (602). Science detached humans from their environment by the individuating process (593), where once individuals were a part of their environment, science now “removes us a step from total reality towards anthropocentrism” (593).
          The scientific tool developed by Aristotle, and refined by Linnaeus and Darwin, has given humans a false sense of isolation from their environment; while the scientific community has become so specialized that many laypeople are dissuaded from trying to understand nature at all (597). Many humans now falsely believe that the nature of ordinary experience corresponds with the limiting nature of the scientific method (598), where anything unscientific is labeled as “unpatriotic and immoral” (602).
          Fowles confronts scrutiny from the scientific community, aptly labeling himself a heretic about Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century botanist who developed the scientific system of naming plants, admitting “I do not dispute the value of the tool he gave to natural science” (593); however, he suspects tools such as science “are disturbers and rearrangers of primordial nature and reality” (604) which “addict us to purpose… and become effectively synonymous with pleasure” (605). Purpose, he contends, is being and surviving (605); while the human arrogance and insouciance towards nature stems directly from our culture’s belief that “it is the general uselessness of so much of nature that lies at the root of our ancient hostility and indifference to it” (598).
          Fowles adds, “our approach to art, as to nature, has become increasing scientized (and dreadfully serious) during this last century” (602). Art is now dismissed as “non-scientific and inegalitarian” (602), but “can be acquired, like knowledge of science, by rote, recipe and hard work” (602). Within the past one hundred and fifty years, humans have devalued the experience or knowledge we define as art (600) by trying to understand and teach it. Fowles asserts that all replication or imitation is worthless and true arts demand “some inwardly creative or purely personal factor beyond the power of external teaching to instill or science to predict” (601). Science is limited to teaching one how and what to look for in external nature, but never questions one’s own nature (601). Ultimately, knowledge can be abused and purpose distorted because, “It is not necessarily too little knowledge that causes ignorance; possessing too much, or wanting to gain too much, can produce the same result” (604).
          According to Fowles, art and science, unlike nature, share the shortfall of anthropocentrism which demands human utility by defoliating the Green Man, by fixing some piece of the present into the past (603). Nature is continually coevolving, re-creating its beauty, unlike art and science which seem “to cast a mysterious veil of deadness, of having already happened, over the actual and present event or phenomenon” (604). To Fowles, nature cannot be captured by any art (596), and science clearly fails the task as well.
          Aldo Leopold presents a more optimistic perspective on the positions of science and art in helping humans develop a strong relationship to nature in A Sand County Almanac. In the prosaic chapter entitled “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold couples his scientific background as a forester and wildlife biologist with an artful eloquence in describing a Wisconsin marsh. His scientific knowledge of geology, evolution, paleontology, ornithology, dendrology, and ecology contribute to the detailed description of the great marsh. Leopold notes the morning fog which resembles “the white ghost of a glacier” (101), the annual return of the cranes “is the ticking of the geologic clock” (103), the cranes “stand…upon the sodden pages of their own history” (102), in peat bogs “laid down in the basin of an ancient lake” (102). The tone seems to congratulate Darwin for enlightening humans to the geologic time scale of evolution, a contrast to Fowles’ assertion that Darwin’s legacy has isolated and detached humans from the natural world (593).
          Curt Meine writes in Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation, “Leopold rarely failed to highlight the aesthetic dimension of his work” (99), and later adds, “[his] aesthetic sensitivity, as enhanced by the new science [of ecology], was useful” (102). Leopold’s endorsement of both art and science to develop a healthy human-nature relationship opposes Fowles’ discouraging perspective on the subject. Fowles stresses, “We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability” (599), but Leopold transcends this dualism in formulating a land aesthetic “that celebrated not the superficial appearance of natural objects and places, but their evolutionary history and ecological relationships; he extended traditional criteria of natural beauty to the point where they essentially merged with his sense of long-term utility based on land health” (Meine 114).
          Fowles and Leopold would agree that words cannot capture the true essence of nature, but the authors diverge on the issue of science and art fostering a healthy human-nature relationship. In The Tree, Fowles feels the Green Man is “lost by science in man’s attitude to nature” (598). Conversely, science and art enhance Leopold’s historical description of the Wisconsin marshland. Indeed, Leopold writes with an informed tone, eloquent speech, and refined style that imparts a land wisdom steeped in scientific knowledge and artistic awareness. Leopold laid the groundwork for the contemporary science of ecology, but simultaneously fostered “the hope that the Green Man in our time will unite what have hitherto been considered antipathetic modes of consciousness, early animism and modern science, and that the union will result in a science and art that are in harmony with wild Nature” (Olshen 96). Unlike Fowles, Leopold seems to call out to the Green Man, maybe even ask to shake his hand, and unite science and art in a sacred ecology that bridges the chasm widening between humans and nature.

Works Cited


Fowles, John. The Tree. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. John Elder and Robert Finch. New York: Norton, 2002. 592-605.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 1949. 101-108.

Meine, Curt. Correction Lines Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation. Washington Island Press, 2004. 89-116.

Olshen, Barry N. The Archetype of the Green Man in the Writing of John Fowles. John Fowles and Nature: Fourteen Perspectives on Landscape. Ed. James R. Aubrey. Madison: Associated University Presses, 1999. 96-113.


I found this article particularly potent and useful as it clearly points out how science has altered our perceptions about the human-nature relationship historically and how our present misconceptions have manifest themselves in modern society. I am currently writing my own treatise on the chief historical events that have altered our relationship with nature that have put us on the brink of destroying the biosphere. I am coupling this with imagery of the planet’s diverse landscapes, flora and fauna as a way of engaging others to re-engage in the beauty of the natural world.