Dillard and the Details

Annie Dillard wraps herself in the wonder of words.  She is very conscious of the impact of the visual and uses language to convey mood in minutiae.  There is mystery in the tiny delicate fringe of a leaf and the intricacy of a fish’s fin.  These details are important for understanding nature’s grand design and beginning to see the interrelationships of creation.  She focuses on the details to give definition and outline to the greater picture.

In a way, I think Annie Dillard feels insignificant, grasping at evidence of life and death around her to understand her place in the scheme of things.  She watches relentlessly, not shying away from cruelty, always observing and analyzing, before the whole scene is reclaimed.  Her scientific observations in the valley are serious writing, but she pads them with layers of description that can almost bury the reader.  Is she writing her way out of individual importance?  Her lusty hunger to understand her environment can go on for pages of revelation about barnacles and tree roots, or the fork in the road.  She takes her time to make her point.

Intricate variety of texture and shape are the kindling for her fire.  She builds and builds, with strong language that reports more than judges, that draws us into her world.  Dillard does not use “I” when she speaks of emotion, but “our”:  “Our excessive emotions are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved.” (p.178)  She is taking the reader to a dark place, a place that wonders about “our” niche in nature, whether we should care about the frog being slurped by a giant water bug or the lacewing eating barnacle larvae. (p.178)  We are forced to consider the relevance of life.  I once saw a neighbor’s cat eating a baby rabbit that was still alive.  The bunny was motionless on its side, ripped open and heaving for air; but a plaintive eye looked up at me with such a wretched appeal.  I wish I had not connected with that grievous eye.  I wish I did not carry the remembrance of that sad event.  I wish Annie Dillard did not remind me of the raw, primitive nature of things.

Thoughts of death and darkness seem to be increasing for Dillard as these chapters unfold.  The very essence of the flowing creek, life-giving and life-affirming, is challenged.  She even wonders if she should move her domicile, “attach” it to the side of something else.  How much can we ultimately alter our perspective or change evolution?  Life is risky.  What she calls “utter spirituality” and “utter degradation” do battle in her thought, as in watching butterfly mating, described in colorful detail; but I do not sense the same yearning to get beyond the fascination with the material scene to a higher, spiritual consciousness that I felt with Thoreau.  She admits that, “By watching them [the butterflies] I in effect permitted their mating to take place and so committed myself to accepting the consequences   —  all because I wanted to see what would happen.  I wanted in on a secret.” (p.159)  Secrets are keys to unlock mysteries borne on wind and water and in decaying earth.  Secrets are the Creator’s explanations waiting to be revealed, the coiled snakeskin that resists untying.

Extravagance meets fecundity in this week’s reading!  I had to look up the word fecund when I encountered it in Walden.  Thoreau and Dillard see fecundity in both the scientific and the poetic.  They would have been interested in Dr. John Beardsly’s lecture last week, which touched on the scientific versus artistic approach to ecology.  Are meditative and reflective architectural landscapes being created now to replace and/or compensate for the loss of natural ones?  Does social geography trump physical?

Annie Dillard doesn’t let us choose a world in which there is no cruelty in nature, where bunnies are not eaten by predators.  She uses both humorous and serious detail to load up her promise (or threat!):  “I don’t want to cut this too short.” (p.179)  She wants us to pay attention.  If I had met her at a gathering in 1974, and she’d asked, “‘Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?'” (p.132), would I have glazed over and headed for the punch bowl?

Dillard relishes detail because of the necessity to understand   —  and to share.  But she is self aware.  Imagining the person to whom she would pose the caterpillar question, she admits, “The poor wretch flees.  I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.  I seem to possess an organ that others lack, a sort of trivia machine.” (p.132)  Trivia loves detail, and the observant pilgrim at Tinker Creek is its master.

Posted in Ann

One thought on “Dillard and the Details

  1. I agree with your assessment, that she wants readers to pay attention–you have a good eye on the intricacy of her detail, the blend of poetic and scientific patterns that interest her. I wonder what you make of her interest in cruelty and suffering. By the end of “Fecundity,” what’s the argument from her that you hear? Your reference to life being risky strikes me as one of her keys–makes me think of edges and fringes, where as you put out, all the intricate details take place.

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