“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
– Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982
Years ago I read “Death of a Moth” by Annie Dillard and was so struck by its communal feel for nature and humanity and mortality. The essay appears in a collection called Holy the Firm. In his article, “Annie Dillard and the Fire of God” Bruce A. Ronda described Dillard’s themes as “beauty and cruelty, intimacy and horror, extravagance and waste” and I think that puts it succinctly. There is ecstasy and suffering in her fluid, lyrical, mystic and intensely self-contemplative words. There is a god(dess)-like knowing in her stark observations.
Annie Dillard had one of her many Book of Job “come to Jesus” moments when she was stricken with a near fatal attack of pneumonia in 1971. Years after she recovered, Annie decided that she needed to experience life more fully, and so Dillard took to living on an island in the Puget Sound in a wooded dwelling with “one enormous window, one cat, one spider and one person.” It was here that she wrote Holy the Firm, asking herself the big questions about the nature of reality, time, death and what God had in mind. But Annie was not single-minded, she was “spiritually promiscuous,” bringing in observations and mythos from multiple religious systems and practices, creating a sort of ecotheology. In her essays and poetry, she wrote towering, terrifying, stylized, and scientifically with both awe and reverence of nature’s beauty and callousness.
Dillard also found her solitude at Tinker Creek. She was the female counterpart to Henry David Thoreau, a “Pilgrim” exploring her own Walden—spending her time outdoors, walking and camping, reading indoors, nestled in the forest, surrounded by creeks, looking up at Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and observing wild animals. After four seasons, Annie was bolstered to write a book for herself because the one she was reading at the time was notably awful. She began to detail her experiences and divided what would become her book into four seasonal sections.
Annie started with a journal, transferred it all to notecards when it expanded beyond 20 volumes, which in turn took her 8 months, writing at a pace of 15-16 hours a day in order to turn those sketches into the Pulitzer-Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She was so absorbed in the work, she lost 30 pounds, sustaining herself primarily on caffeine, and her houseplants died of neglect. She was so fearful about publicly presenting her book as a woman writing on the topic of theology, she even considered publishing it under a man’s name.
There are few women writers that I am aware of and admire such as Annie Dillard and her experience with the natural world. Women who without the comfort or trappings of a ladies finery, retreat from a masculine, unbalanced, god-fearing, mechanical existence. Women who choose crash helmets over velvet when they approach the ineffable essence of the internal spiritual life and do so with a dark curiosity that seeks to illuminate and incorporate the shadows.
I encourage you to read “The Force That Drives The Flower,” written in 1973 and printed in The Atlantic Monthly in 1977 (mind the format continues on for 3 pages). In this, I am still particularly struck by her glorious and gruesome account of the insect world and how we, as a human species, are a little bit freakish in our fecundity.
“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. There is not a people in the world that 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 suckled 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 . . . I read what the men with telescopes and microscopes have to say about the landscape, I read about the polar ice, and I drive myself deeper and deeper into exile from my own kind. But, since I cannot avoid the library altogether—the human culture that taught me to speak in its tongue—I bring human values to the creek, and so save myself from being brutalized.”
Where are the new Tinker Creeks? How much nature will we leave behind so that we may retreat to it in order to value that integral part of ourselves? Who among modern women asks us to question faith in God and men and political leaders without fear of being shamed, marginalized, or destroyed? Who, like Annie, will be the mystic of our times, “a seeker after moments of vision, possession and yielding.” What is the force that drives the flower? Who are our female spiritual writers and leaders, now?