Nature Mysticism

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Annie Dillard

Life and Work
Annie Dillard was born in 1945, studied English, theology, and creative writing, and came to attention with the Pulitzer-Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book was written in 1974, when she was twenty-nine, and comprises a series of Nature essays somewhat in the tradition of Thoreau's Walden, a subject she had chosen for her Master's thesis. Her family background was Presbyterian, and later in life she converted to Roman Catholicism.
Dillard tells us that "I am no scientist. I am a wanderer with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts." At times her work does sound like popular science, but in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek it is her closely observed accounts of Nature and her reflections on its implications that commend attention. Dillard represents a more 20th century mind than Krishnamurti does, and is a good contrast to the predominantly 19th century Nature mystics and naturalists in this section. She shares with Sartre for example a typical 20th century 'iron in the soul', manifesting itself as an ambivalence about the very Nature she is so preoccupied with. Nevertheless her feel for Nature is profound and mystical, and in combination with her more modern sensibilities lets us explore the problems of perfection, pain and death in connection with this spiritual path.
Dillard has the aesthetic sense and naturalist's vocabulary of the Nature mystic, a Christian background, and many of those culturally determined secular instincts that developed since Whitman and Traherne. 'Iron in the soul' and irony, as well as passion and transcendence, though the latter is constrained by personal and social reservations. We could sum these up as a morbidity, that is an over-developed fear of one's own mortality, and by extension of other living beings. To say that this fear is 'over-developed' is from a bigger perspective than the 20th century intellectual ambience of the USA in the seventies, when Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and which fear seems of course quite natural to most of us today. The book, with all its wonderful descriptions of Nature starts with two images that spell out to us her (and our) unease and fascination with Nature. The first is of her old tomcat jumping on her bed in the morning with bloody paws, leaving her as though she had been 'painted with roses'. The second, described in more detail is of a frog that doesn't jump at her approach (for this is her amusement one summer along the creek):
He didn't jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island's winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.5-6)
She goes on to tell us that the 'oval shadow' was a giant water bug which eats insects, tadpoles, fish and frogs. The account, told with superb artistry, leads her straight into a reflection on the meaning of life: "That it's rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac." This description touches on the very anxiety that modern life has at its core, a paradox when we compare our securities of living today with the much more dangerous world of mid-nineteenth century Whitman or seventeenth century Traherne. Dillard cites Pascal, that most modern of pessimists, in his expression Deus Absconditus, and wonders if God has not left but merely absconded with the meaning. She goes on to ponder:
It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe has spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.7)
Having introduced us to the horrors of the natural world and her anxieties in their typical 20th-century articulation, she then comes to the counterpoint: that the world is full of beauty, grace, power and light. She illustrates this with a description of a mockingbird, the same bird that Whitman had mentioned a hundred years earlier:
     About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.
     The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating at thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded the corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.7-8)
This passage shows Dillard's sensitivity to beauty, her knowledge of science, and also a hint for the Nature Mystic to 'be there'. We can take that simply as an invitation to observe Nature, or see in it an exhortation to be truly in the present, with silent mind, available. Some of Dillard's descriptive passages are overwhelming in their intensity and response to the power of Nature, and can be located in the direct tradition of the great American Nature writers. That she is a woman gives her prose and observation some additional subtlety in this largely male tradition; does it also make her that much more inclined to tackle the underbelly of the natural world head-on? Or speak of Nature's power in almost sexual terms? Like for Thoreau and Jefferies, but unlike for Whitman, Nature is a quest and a context for effort, for seeking, never knowing when the unanticipated satisfaction arises or the anticipated phenomenon fails to materialise. "The lover can see, and the knowledgeable," says Dillard, which could be equally true of Nature or the spiritual life, though 'knowledgeable' is not of the Universities or pulpits.
Yet Dillard is haunted by that peculiarly 20th century alienation spelled out so vividly for us in Sartre's Nausea. In a mild form it shows as an anxiety about perfection, that on close examination all the living things that she encounters have a feather missing, a lump of fur chewed off, the teethmarks of just-failed predation, a parasitical invasion, or any of countless other imperfections. More severe is her distress at the unbridled fecundity of the animal world, pointing out that 'acres of rats' sounds quite sinister in comparison with 'acres of tulips.' It is the insect world that particularly alienates her however, devoting a whole chapter to them, called 'Fixed' in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But first, let us look at some passages that are reminiscent of Nausea, where she finds the silence of the countryside unbearable:
     I do not want, I think, ever to see such a sight again. That there is loneliness here I had granted, in the abstract—but not, I thought, inside the light of God's presence, inside his sanction, and signed by his name.
      When I turned away in this manner, the silence gathered and struck me. It bashed me broadside from the heavens above me like yard goods; ten acres of fallen, invisible sky choked the fields. The pastures on either side of the road turned green in a surrealistic fashion, monstrous, impeccable, as if they were holding their breaths. The roosters stopped. All the things of the world—the fields and the fencing, the road, a parked orange truck—were stricken and self-conscious. a world pressed down on their surfaces, a world battered just within their surfaces, and that real world, so near to emerging, had got stuck.
     There was only silence. It was the silence of matter caught in the act and embarrassed. (Teaching a Stone to Talk, p.131-133)
This could easily have been from Nausea in fact: 'choked', 'monstrous', 'stricken and self-conscious', 'stuck', 'caught in the act and embarrassed' is exactly Sartre's language. Dillard resolves the situation in an unexpected way however; she later finds herself unexpectedly explaining to a friend that those fields were full of 'angels':
     From that time on I began to think of angels. I considered that sights such as I had seen of the silence must have been shared by the people who said they saw angels. I began to review the things I had seen that morning. My impression now of those fields is of thousand of spirits—spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time—thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground. Only their motion was clear (clockwise, if you insist); that, and their beauty unspeakable.
     There are angels in those fields, and, I presume, in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact. What all this means about perception, or language, or angels, or my own sanity, I have no idea. (Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 136-137)
This presents us with the completion of an interesting journey around Dillard's psyche: we have the mystic receptivity to Nature common to the 19th century writers, overlaid with the ambivalence brought on by the acts of predation she witnesses; taken to an extreme of alienation in the description of her loneliness; and then resolved with an atavistic call to the ancient idea of Nature spirits. What we are encountering of course is the typically complex psyche of any modern intelligent person, but through its contemplation we can understand much better what obstacles might lie in the path of Nature Mysticism as a route to the transcendent.


There is a revealing passage in the introduction by Richard Adams to Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek: "If she were to feel much more deeply the misery, futility and waste of Nature which she describes so tellingly, she would go out of her mind; so would we all." But why is this true at the end of the 20th century when it wasn't for the 19th century Nature writers and mystics? Whitman, Jefferies, Thoreau, John Muir and John Burroughs did not find 'the misery, futility and waste of Nature', so why do we now? Let us look further on Dillard's precise take on this problem. Her reactions to the world of insects is a good starting place; it involves a whole series of unconscious anthropomorphisms:
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect—the possibility of fertile reproduction—is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god. Even that devout Frenchman, J.Henri Fabre, who devoted his entire life to the study of insects, cannot restrain a feeling of unholy revulsion. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.63)
Dillard's honesty is ever valuable to us: why do we forgive the large predators, for example lions, and not the insects? Our inner confusion shows up again and again, for example in a Nature programme for television where the zoologist/commentator talks lovingly of how lion cubs learn to make their first kill, and then reacts in genuine horror when he witnesses the stragglers from a herd of wildebeest discovering the cubs and trampling them to death. Why, using Dillard's language, is the one killing cute and cuddly and the other 'an assault on all human value'? Why is it acceptable for the frog to be eaten by a heron, higher on the evolutionary scale, but unacceptable for it to be eaten by a giant water bug, a mere insect? No glib reply will help of course, but a good starting point to this conundrum may lie in the concept of identification. We identify with the large predators, because we are one of them, indeed Dillard several times points out that she is a meat eater and 'predator', though whether she has killed anything larger than a mosquito in her life is not clear. Another clue to this paradox may lie in the fact that we identify not just with large predators per se, but because of their intelligence. This is partly the theme behind the Fixed chapter, that insects show so little intelligence:
That the insects have adapted is obvious. Their failures to adapt, however, are dazzling. It is hard to believe that nature is partial to such dim-wittedness. Howard Ensign Evans tells of dragon-flies trying to lay eggs on the shining hoods of cars. Other dragon-flies seem to test a surfce, to learn if it's really water, by dipping the tips of their abdomens in it. At the Los Angeles La Brea tar pits, they dip their abdomens into the reeking tar and get stuck. If by tremendous effort the dragonfly frees itself, Evans reports it is apt to repeat the maneuver. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.65)
Why is that a lack of intelligence is a prompt for us to despise or even hate? The two most common criticisms of the ubiquitous town pigeon for example are that it is injured (as Dillard also contemplated with her 'frayed flighted things') or that they are stupid. Do these two things not command our compassion rather than horror? It seems that an injury or a manifestation of stupidity alienate us instead, because we anthropomorphise, i.e. we imagine ourselves to be the stuck dragon-fly or club-footed pigeon and shrink in horror at what it would mean to our own lives. Why don't we do it though for the antelope or zebra that has just become lunch for the vulture or lion? We do of course, but the point is one of priorities: we care slightly less for them because they are not 'kings of the jungle' which we secretly believe that we are.

Dillard, as an educated late-20th century Westerner, has a new take on Nature that invitably changes her thinking from her 'Walden' forebears: Darwinism. This adds to the complexities and ambivalences already present in her love of Nature, as we find in her descriptions of her visits to the Galapagos islands, a fitting pilgrimage for a 20th century Nature writer:

Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. This is easy to write, easy to read, and hard to believe. The words are simple, the concept clear—but you don't believe it, do you? Nor do I. How could I, when we're both so lovable? Are my values so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves? This is the key point. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 176)
A key point indeed. One of the definitions of the spiritual life is the gradual alignment of one's own will (and hence its disappearance and that of its owner) into the will of God, or in non-theistic terms into the will of existence or the Whole. We will pursue this point in the concluding sections on Nature Mysticism, but for now let us see how Dillard grapples with the issue:
     Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.
     Consider the former: the world is a monster. Any three-year-old can see how unsatisfactory and clumsy is this whole business of reproducing and dying by the billions. We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.
Like all great writers Dillard speaks for the community of her time, and finds in addition an image that is purely her own to make the point. Here it is the simple act that most of us may have carried out: righting a helpless creature like a beetle on to its feet which would otherwise have perished. And her point is that she has found no god yet who does as much. She continues:
There is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckles us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt. It is fixed and blind, a robot programmed to kill. We are free and seeing; we can only try to outwit it at every turn to save our skins.
    This view requires that a monstrous world running on chance and death, careening blindly from nowhere to nowhere, somehow produced wonderful us. I came from the world, I crawled out of a sea of amino acids, and now I must whirl around and shake my fist at that sea and cry Shame! If I value anything at all, then I must blindfold my eyes when I near the Swiss Alps. We must as a culture disassemble our telescopes and settle down to backslapping. We little blobs of soft tissues crawling around on this one planet's skin are right, and the whole universe is wrong. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 177)
Dillard is making a very contemporary point here that it is because we do not 'blindfold our eyes' or 'disassemble our telescopes' that we are seeing what even a three-year-old sees: 'a monstrous world running on chance and death'. But did not the 19th century Nature enthusiasts see as much 'chance and death' as we do today? The answer has to be yes, but something has changed in the modern soul, a relatively recent morbidity that cannot contemplate death of the self and by extension the death of other living things (or vice versa). Let Dillard continue:
    Or consider the alternative.
    Julian of Norwich, the great English anchorite and theologian cited, in the manner of the prophets, these words from God: "See, I am God: see, I am in all things: see, I never lift my hand off my works, nor ever shall, without end --- How should anything be amiss?" But now not even the simplest and best of us sees things the way Julian did. It seems to us that plenty is amiss. So much is amiss that I must consider the second fork in the road, that creation itself is blamelessly, benevolently askew by its very free nature, and that it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss. The frog that the giant water bug sucked had, presumably, a rush of pure feeling for about a second, before its brain turned to broth. I, however, have been sapped by various strong feelings about the incident almost daily for several years.(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 177-178)
One could spend a longer time with Dillard, and indeed one should in order to discover more of the positive and mystical side of her response to Nature, and other relevant issues that she raises. However, for now, she has served us well by spelling out in the most vivid way the major obstacle to Nature as a route to the transcendent.

Via Positiva 

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