Monday, May 9, 2016

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

"It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out."

In the opening epigram, facing the Table of Contents page, Heraclitus, over 2,500 years ago, said in twenty words what Annie Dillard used 279 pages to say in her masterpiece of nature writing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Using keen observation and much research, her chronicle of a year of life near Tinker Creek and its surrounds is a much more nuanced and detailed look at the Fire that keeps each of us and the rest of the Universe in constant aliveness and motion.

A 2016 Reading Challenge book, I finished my well-worn ex-library copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last night, and have some thoughts about it before moving on to the next book on my list. This book reminds me of a project begun in 2013 by my favorite book blogger who blogs as dovegreyreader. She had been reading nature writers Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin and decided to learn as much as she could about the area covering a one mile radius surrounding her English country home. She has written about her explorations here: Beating the Bounds.

From the frontispiece of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

"One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance...I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck."

"It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen..." From the beginning, Dillard is "beating the bounds" of her neighborhood in western Virginia while using what she sees and hears as evidence for her personal abiding faith in a Creator. We are with her as she walks along Tinker Creek and then stands stock still as she watches a frog collapse inward, like a leather purse being slowly folded flat. She then reports what she found through research that an aquatic water bug with pincers holds the frog in place from behind, injects a liquefying agent, and quickly sucks the frog to death. Poor innocent frog! But wait, does not the frog eat something else alive one second and dead the next? As Alfred Lord Tennyson said in a poem, nature is "red in tooth and claw" and that is quite apparent from the start in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Organized by season, Dillard takes us around her suburban surrounds. From the sky to the quarry we learn how to "see" nature. Once seen, we learn a little more about how to understand what we are seeing. And, for some of us this understanding is a spiritual experience, for others a confirmation that physics and biology work together in mysterious ways.

For Dillard, the journey's ultimate goal is spiritual. For me, reading about the journey resulted in a better understanding of what is over my head, in the water around me, and under my feet. Satisfying enough for this reader. The ongoing confirmation of Dillard's faith actually seemed "preachy" at times and nearly caused me to put the book down and not finish it. However, reminding myself that not everybody is the same (thank you, Jane Austen!), I stuck with it and am glad I did.

For me, the most incredible bit in the book takes place in a quarry, in the fall. Dillard has decided to contemplate the sunset as she looks over a quarry. She notices a curved "something" on a rock ledge over the way. Deciding to take a look, she walks in that direction but stops as soon as she realizes it is a small copperhead snake resting on the rock, still warm from the last of the day's sunlight. Knowing the risk she is taking, she moves closer to the snake and sits down within four feet of it. She sits very still and observes the snake, its scales, how its tail decreases in size to nothingness, how its head is raised up above the rock. Then, in amazement she watches a mosquito land on the snake's back and begin sucking its blood. This lasts for about two minutes. She imagines how much effort the mosquito has to expend to reach between the scales and find the perfect place to insert its needle-sharp snout. After this is over, Dillard wonders if the snake could feel the mosquito as it went about its work. She also tells the reader that copperhead snakes are abundant in her area, account for most poisonous snakebites in the U.S., and are not quite poisonous enough to kill an adult human. There are timber rattlers in her woods too and she always carries a snake bite kit with her wherever she goes.

I admire her courage. Copperheads are found in the hill country of Texas too. When we visited relatives there I was always worried sick about one finding my kids as they played in the brushy areas around their grandma's house. We should have thought of a snake bite kit!

Here are a few of the notes I took as I went along:

Dillard quotes Arthur Koestler: "Gravity, to Copernicus, is the nostalgia of things to become spheres."

From a physicist: "Everything that has happened is a particle, everything in the future is a wave."

Dillard: "Beauty itself is the language for which there is no key."
"I find it hard to see anything about a bird that it does not want seen. It demands my full attention."

This is a GOOD book. If you are interested in nature and like nature writing, even down to the gory bits, I highly recommend it.

Annie Dillard is now in her early 70s and lives on an island in the Puget Sound. Here is what she has to say about her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

"In 1971 I wanted to try my hand at prose. My journals were full of facts that I used to write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained nonfiction narrative about the fields, creeks, woods, and mountains near Roanoke, Virginia. Because I "Named" its chapters, in the style of 19th-century narratives, many reviewers took it for a book of essays. The book attempted to describe the creator, if any, by studying creation, leading one writer to call me (wonderfully) 'one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th century' ".

It's that "nature, red in tooth and claw" bit.