I am reminded as I look back on the tenth chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek of a Dr. Seuss book:


In Scrambled Eggs Super the main character, bored of just regular-grocery-store-chicken eggs goes in search of some other kind of egg to eat. He wants variety. However, Annie Dillard is forever questioning–especially in this chapter, the need for variety. Why?

Part of what she finds uncomfortable in the variety of life and the fecundity of it, is that she herself is limited in her scope. She admits she could never dream up a fraction of the creations that are available on this planet. She is made very aware of her limitations when she is forced to accept this variety which nature seems to accomplish effortlessly.

This chapter follows her Summer chapter, which involves what she perceives as a devastating flood. It makes sense she would focus so narrowly on the cycles of life and death—specifically on the beginning of the life cycle.   The wrathful God of the Old Testament has flooded the earth—and now life must begin again.

Fecundity, does have a very earthy connotation however, its definition is not one that has a specifically bad association within it.  It is defined by one word—until you read all of the various other definitions—in the OED: fruitfulness.

Annie Dillard goes on at length about how she doesn’t understand the need for this fruitfulness. She has, previously within the book, mentioned her confusion at the creator making anything more than a single hydrogen atom.

She likes to take things to hyperbolic extremes, like Thoreau, it seems. (Though, it seems to me that her confusion is of a more genuine nature.)

One of the more important phrases in this chapter, or perhaps, a sentence that really gets to the meat of what she is trying to say is:

The whole world is an incubator for incalculable numbers of eggs, each one coded minutely and ready to burst.

She has previously spoken of eggs—like those of the praying mantis. But she has dedicated almost this entire chapter to ruminating on eggs, the laying of eggs, the hatching of eggs the improbability of life actually having success in bursting forth from eggs.  She also seems less in wonder at the magic of the eggs and more disgusted at the sheer volume of the eggs. Why so many? Why so many different kinds?  She is challenging the variety found in life. She is questioning is validity and its necessity.

I am reminded of passage in Walden:

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation.

She is questioning the laws of Nature—though she is far more apt to question God or the Creature than Nature, as Thoreau was. (She seems to pull in far more Christian beliefs in a more blatant manner than Thoreau ever did.)  In questioning the variety beyond a hydrogen atom she is questioning the value of her own existence—though she never spells that out.  Yes, she is speaking of bugs and insects more often than not—but she has zoomed her lens in and out enough that it is no stretch to find an analogy to how humanity can be viewed in terms of the cosmos and time. Small and seemingly insignificant.

It is a challenging chapter, she is arguing several sides of an argument, the  meaning of life, she is appearing to change views she has held in the previous nine chapters.  It seems in a way to be the apex of the book, is she at a turning point in what she is trying to accomplish? Is she finally going to spell out why she is writing this book? We have not yet had an Economy chapter that nicely spells out what her modus operandi  is. Is it just her trying to illustrate as best she can her confusion at how the world works? How it works but seems as if it shouldn’t?

It has been over thirty years since this book was first published—science, our understanding of the natural world has evolved  since then. I wonder what sort of book she would write now, instead of Tinker Creek if she were to revisit her original mission.

Let’s not forget that eggs are the best metaphor for ideas. When she is questioning eggs she is no doubt also questioning her own thoughts and creative output. Is what she is putting out going to take root? Will it spawn new ideas in others? Can it survive in the world out there and not just fester and eat her alive as larvae are apt to do to their host?

One thought on “Fecundity

  1. Very good response. You have a good eye for Dillard’s focus on the eggs, the ways it returns; I think she would rather agree with you, her ‘creator’ and its pizazz is a bit like Seuss. She turns to focus here, unlike with Intricacy, on waste–questioning not just the amount of fruitfulness, but the amount that is wasted in the process of being fruitful.
    And a good final point, bringing this focus on fruitfulness back to her ideas, her expression and its extravagance. The next few chapters will continue the thread, but also (I think) provide some further contexts for her thinking.

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