THE ECOTHEOLOGY OF ANNIE DILLARD: A STUDY IN AMBIVALENCE
By Pamela A. Smith
"If I wanted to make a theological statement I would have hired a skywriter," declared Annie Dillard in a 1978 interview. She made the disclaimer amid the flurry of attention and acclaim which followed the Pulitzer prize-winning narrative of one Virginia wonder-year, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and her well-told triduum of wonder and suffering, Holy the Firm (1977).
Her protestation notwithstanding, Dillard has persistently been hailed in a variety of religious magazines and theological journals as a "mystic," a "contemplative," an "exegete," a "panentheistic" theologian, a kind of ecological guru-- and thus as a resource for the ecotheology and ecospirituality currently developing. Since her conversion to Catholicism in 1988, she has been honored with two prestigious awards, the 1994 Milton Prize and, that same year, the Campion Medal, for her "contribution to the Catholic tradition of arts and letters" and her mix of "craft and religious conviction."
Dillard has similarly insisted: "I don't write at all about ethics. . . . The kind of art I write is shockingly uncommitted." Yet she has been tied to the thought of the "land ethic" themes of Aldo Leopold and the cosmological "vision ethics" associated with Thomas Berry. Dillard scholar Linda Smith has gone so far as to derive ten "instructions" for spiritual living from Dillard's Pilgrim.
The reader of the Dillard corpus therefore has to wonder: Is there a consistent, systematic ecotheology inscribed in Dillard's varied works? Is she indeed a "rigorous" moralist, some sort of incipient ecoethicist? Although a close reading of Dillard seems to rule out a possible "yes" to these questions, intriguing God-problems and ethical dilemmas emerge which invite resolution by the reader who will face them.
A Dillard Overview
Annie Dillard is, even the aficionado has to admit, hard to pin down. One of the reasons is the variety of topics and genres to be found among the nine book-length works which have appeared over the last twenty-plus years. She writes about everything from giant water bugs' frog-eating habits to outrageous practical jokes her mother pulled at beaches and zoos. Dillard considers everyone from burn victims to stunt pilots, wanders everywhere from Virginia creeks to arctic ice floes, from the Galapagos Islands to Puget Sound. She is interested in Chinese writers, Eskimos, and Pittsburgh Presbyterians as well as Polyphemus moths, solar eclipses, and sycamores.
The three books which made her name and prompted all the accolades for her as an ecological writer were exquisite nonfiction, the "naturalist" essays of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. But her first book, largely unnoticed until Pilgrim (published later the same year) won raves and prizes, was a collection of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. Dillard's fifth book was literary criticism, Living by Fiction, which takes on matters of modern and postmodern style, "fine writing" and "plain writing," plotted and plotless narratives. Book six was a light travelogue and series of sketches done in China and the United States, Encounters with Chinese Writers. The seventh was a hefty and often humorous autobiography, An American Childhood. Book eight came back to literary concerns again, this time focusing on the art and craft of writing, a small collection called The Writing Life. The ninth is her longest and most ambitious, a sprawling multi-generational novel, The Living, about pioneers and Native Americans in the nineteenth-century settlements at the edges of fir and cedar forests in what is now the state of Washington. Clearly, she is no specialist, no worker over of the same themes and forms.
If the 1978 remarks betrayed Dillard's reluctance to be categorized as an ecological, theological, or ecotheological writer, her literary output since has guaranteed that she is not perceived as concerned only with the God of creation, the phenomena of nature, and the human place in the biosphere. And yet there are certain persistent strains, certain refrains, which allow the reader of all her works to describe something like a Dillard ecotheology. It may not be thoroughgoing, it may seesaw considerably, and it may defy translation from vision to virtue-ethic, but it surely merits attention. Although Dillard is a good distance from the ecological vision propounded by ecofeminists, deep ecologists, and a number of environmental ethicists, she holds subtle and not-so-subtle views that should be reckoned with. Dillard is, after all, consummately American, and she is, as one of her high school instructors remarked, "alas,... a child of the twentieth century." She is also a notably skilled and gifted writer who is well on her way to achieving classic status. Thus, anything she says outright or implies along ecotheological lines must be understood as speaking for the age and from the culture, even while attempting to speak to it. Her influential notions about who God is, how nature operates, and what the human might be in interaction with these, are the concerns of the remainder of this article- and the foundation for what seems a strikingly ambivalent Dillard ecotheology.
Dillard on God
God does not cut a fine figure in Dillard's autobiography, though there is ample reference to churchgoing. She also narrates a short-lived adolescent episode of church-quitting, which seems to have been resolved after a minister took her seriously and lent her some C. S. Lewis volumes. Left unresolved for Dillard is one large God-question: "If the all-powerful creator directs the world, then why all this suffering?" (AAC, 513). She finds the pat answers -- like "pain is God's megaphone" (AAC, 513) -- unsatisfying. C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain is "fascinating, not quite serious enough, and too short" in the reconstructed opinion of Dillard's teenage years, though she does find helpful Lewis's insight that "there is plenty of suffering, but one never suffers the sum of it" (AAC, 513).
God is generally in absentia from the books on writing. If one excepts some allusions to Hasidism or a reference to Jacob Boehme on Deity, it would seem that God appears only in exclamations: "God save us" (WL, 574). What does seem to matter to Dillard in Living by Fiction and The Writing Life are things like meaning, fidelity to some purpose, coherence-- abstractions associated with God but inadequate pointers to such a reality.
In Dillard's most recent book, the monumental fiction work called The Living, the God-talk is virtually the monopoly of Ada Fishburn Tawes, who quotes the Bible prodigiously, recalls melancholy passages in which people are left childless, widowed, or orphaned, and who represents a particularly gloomy brand of Protestantism. The Catholic Lummi Indians mix Roman symbols and superstitions with tribal religious practices quite wonderfully and cheerfully, even if also heterodoxically. The Methodist Nooksacks seem scornful of the Lummi tribes' sensory Romanism. The one character in the book who emerges as genuinely and profoundly religious is one who never adverts to God: the farmboy and woodland clearer turned schoolmaster turned real estate speculator, Clare Fishburn. His encounter with his own mortality, via an extended and seemingly sincere death threat, stirs in him a primeval love of land, sky, water, and trees even as it enflames the ardor of his love for his wife and inspires the realization that going fishing might be a more beneficial pursuit than making money or seeking political of-rice. It has to be noted that Clare Fishburn's voice, more than any of the women's voices in the novel, seems most authentically akin to Dillard's own? That voice does not so much address God as it awakes to the world. Clare becomes observant, appreciative, contemplative, even as he believes that a time-bomb is ticking perilously for him. God gets nary a nod, but the rhythm of Clare's life becomes more godly.
This matter of godliness and God brings up an issue which inevitably appears to the reader of the Dillard works in which God is mentioned --namely, the poems and the nature essays. What is going on when Dillard speaks of God with a capital "G" and when she speaks of "a god," "the god," or "gods" with a small "g," which she does with some frequency? "God," it seems at first, is the God of the Jewish and Christian traditions, the God of the Bible, the God preached from pulpits and taught in Sunday school. Dillard speaks, for example, of the God of Genesis who "makes the guarantee" that there will be night and day and seasons of the year. She refers to the God of Moses, the God of "the priests," who must be feared because "if God is in one sense, the igniter, a fireball that spins over the ground of continents, God is also in another sense the destroyer, lightning, blind power, impartial as the atmosphere" (PTC, 90). God hovers over the ark of the covenant before which David dances (PTC, 97). God is also the one, Dillard recalls, who "used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting sacred groves." Then she remarks, with a pregnant pause, "I wish I could find one," lamenting the fact that Westerners have, in her estimation, "moved from pantheism to pan-atheism" as they have succeeded in removing a sense of the sacred from just about everything? This God of the Bible, the God of the churches, is also, as far as Dillard is concerned, maddeningly silent: "The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God's brooding over the face of the waters; the whine of wings" (TST, 76).
This God can be, should be, prayed to, it seems --- as in the poem "Feast Days," where the prayer, however, sounds in part like a parody. There is petition:
And, later in the same poem, there is question:
This God with the capital "G" is almighty. He has made forests (PTC, 128), and his will is the reason why neighbor Larry can't succeed at teaching his pet stone to talk (TST, 68). The "intricacy" of God is "unfathomable and apparently uncalled for," Dillard reflects. God creates from nothing, and "the lone ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical" that it ought to have sufficed as manifestation of God's creative action (PTC, 130). God is "apt to create anything," Dillard asserts; "He'll stop at nothing" (PTC, 133). And yet, it seems, God can't do everything.
God can't seem to spare people from going blind, and he can't seem to save little Julie Norwich in Holy the Firm from being grotesquely burned in a small-plane accident. "We do need reminding," Dillard observes ruefully, "not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel's worth of sense into our days." God ought to be "all good," as faith teaches, she notes (HF, 47). But so often Dillard finds herself asking if he is downright malevolent. Is God "a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity, and the engines of matter unhinged?" (HF, 46) Or is God really the God of the deists, a God who "has the same affectionate disregard for us that we have for barnacles?" she asks (PTC, 163). Is it the truth that "the creator loves pizzazz" (PTC, 135), or that "God does not... give a hoot" (TST, 31)? Both seem true for Dillard. At the very least, God, in Dillard, is inscrutable. There may be reasonable doubt cast on the accusation that God despises the world or is ill-willed. But one cannot really go further than to say that God might love and be "good" in ways beyond human comprehension.
God is always "he" when written with a capital "G." And this "he," she suggests, is somehow "here" (TST, 137), confronting us with the steady possibility that we have "misunderstood everything" (TST, 141). But if we have not misunderstood some aspects of the natural world, then Dillard judges it necessary to concede that God has, at best, a laissez-faire attitude toward this world in which he is elusively present. One can only respond with ambivalence to such a God. There is beauty and rich variety that compel praise: "I smelled silt on the wind, turkey, laundry, leaves... my God what a world. There is no accounting for one second of it" (PTC, 251). And there is cause for fierce lament: "God look at what you've done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!" (PTC, 254) God acts and slinks away, pleases and enrages, becomes for a while Christ, has something to do with "spirit," as Dillard mentions once or twice (PTC, 180, 198). God manages to do and to be any number of things. The Dillard prose-poem "God" leaves the reader with a kind of "Say what?" response- which seems to be exactly what Dillard intends:
This upper-case "God," the God who might be One or Five or Ten, slips in and out of being lower-case "god" in Dillard from time to time. Shortly before the invocation to "God" in the poem "Feast Days," we find "god" addressed. It is Thanksgiving, and the poet notes:
In another work, in the midst of considering Christians, catacombs, ushers, hatted ladies, and the general lack of awareness of "conditions" natural and supernatural when people come to worship, Dillard interjects: "[T]he sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return" (TST, 40-41). In these instances, it seems that God becomes "god" when people attempt to shrink the deity to manageable size, when people pray mindlessly or persist in tunnel vision. The reader can imagine Dillard shouting the title of the little spiritual classic by John Phillips: Your God Is Too Small.
At other times, however, "god" is not a shrunken God at all. In Pilgrim, "god" is the god of Heraclitus. This god teaches that the watcher of insects "had better be scrying the signs" (PTC, 66). In Holy the Firm, "god" is all over the place: god is the quilt around Dillard, Puget Sound, the Pacific, a bird caught by her cat, a glacier, a tree, desert, stars (HF, 11-12, 27, 49, 62-63). Yet when she buys a bottle of wine to offer for the communion service at the local church, Dillard comments, "I'm out on the road again walking, and toting a backload of God"--with the upper case in place (HF, 64). In this same book she declares: "Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk..." (HF, 11). She speaks repeatedly of "the god of today," who is also, incidentally, "he"--"a boy, pagan and fernfoot... he is everything that is, wholly here and emptied- fluid, and flowing, sowing, unseen, and flown" (HF, 30-31). After the seven-year-old is burned in the freak accident recounted in this book, Dillard declaims, reverting to upper case, "that the world is immanation, that God is in the thing, and eternally present here, if nowhere else." She speaks of "immanence" and "emanence" (HF, 70) in a way that almost, but not quite, brings together "God" and the various "gods." Godliness, it seems, appears from within things and also somehow comes down upon them from an emanating godhead. When godliness becomes, for better or worse, altogether overwhelming, God gets the capital "G."
It may be a long shot, but it seems, when one considers the question of godliness as it appears in Dillard's writings, that she might most accurately be classified as henotheistic. The God beyond human grasp keeps calling the God-seeker back, yet there are plenty of other gods around. These gods captivate human attention, stimulate the imagination, provide nourishment, and provoke exploration. As far as God with the capital "G" is concerned, he- definitely "he" in Dillard- has something to do with the world, with its existence, its force and its fever, but one can relate to him only with ambivalence. He remains, for Dillard, reliably real but incomprehensible.
God leaves the seeker with as many questions as the natural world itself does. Whether God has any special plan, any grand design for the whole cosmos or for planet earth, is anyone's guess. Whether God cares about creaturely slaughter or human sin -- even biocide or geocide -- is impossible to tell. What Dillard says in Living by Fiction about the world at large seems also to sum up her conclusions about God: "Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know" (LBF, 185). Meanwhile, she does seem to favor treating the lower-case gods well.
The Natural World in Dillard
John Becker has observed that Dillard lives at a far remove from the world of the romantic and transcendentalist writers of the nineteenth century with whom she is often compared. As a child of the twentieth century, she has inherited the perceptions of Darwinian evolution and the Big Bang theory of cosmogenesis. She knows of Einstein's relativity, quantum physics, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. As a result, Becker suggests, she "arrives, over and over, at chaos" and, in the end, presents a vision which is "dysteleological." Becker's observation seems quite on target. Dillard's scientifically informed worldview may account, in significant measure, for her ambivalence toward the natural world as well as for some of her ambivalence toward God.
It seems less important to recount, as other reviewers and critics have, Dillard's encounters with dying frogs, mating mantises, exploring muskrats, incidental weasels, illumined trees, and the slimy algae appearing in her goldfish bowl than to consider what she makes of all of these. One thing the reader must note about Dillard is that she pays unflagging attention to all sorts of zoological and botanical goings-on. Two questions seem critical here for a Dillard ecotheology. First, what does she conclude about what she sees nature and creatures doing? Secondly, how does she personally relate or respond? The second question seems a vital one, since a number of voices are heard today insisting that "a feeling for the organism" is essential to any healthy ecological perception. And both questions are important in light of the present ecological trend to regard the universe as the "primary sacred community" (to use Thomas Berry's expression), the earth itself as a living organism (as the Gaia hypothesis has it), and all creation as kin, a "living communion" of relatives (as Elizabeth Johnson and Michael Dowd render it).
What does Dillard make, then, of what she sees? In Pilgrim, she views nature as "profligate," wasteful, riddied with "extravagance" in the way that it throws off leaves, insects, lives (PTC, 67). She sees it as beautiful, in a "ribbon" of RNA or in the moons of Uranus (PTC, 72). It is deathdealing and productive, destructive and self-renewing, buzzing with "a swarm of...wild, wary energies" (PTC, 197), blessed and cursed, adaptive and terrible.
The story of nature for Dillard is not a blithe passage from winter to spring to summer to fall and to another winter; it is a story of eating. She spends a chapter on snakes, parasites, and the oddities of feeding. The law of nature is the law of endless "chomp": kill or be killed, eat or starve, "chomp or fast" (PTC, 228). As she watches and studies, Dillard muses on this universal chomping:
The law of nature for Dillard is not survival of the fittest. It is more a matter of the survival of those who circumstantially survive. Accident, luck, unpredictability, nonsense, murder, and default all come into play. These all go on with senseless abandon, with nature's own bizarre brand of happenstance and freedom:
The law of freedom is also the law of death. "Evolution loves death," Dillard is convinced, "more than it loves you or me" (PTC, 171).
These phenomena of nature -- the chomping, the fling of freedom, the ceaseless dying- permeate Dillard's writing, even as she celebrates nature's explosive splendor, tells of its intricacy and lushness, with loving skill. The strangeness and fragility of things become manifest even to the child, especially if, as Dillard says that she did in her young years, the child pursues adventures with her microscope, insect-collecting, rock and mineral-classifying, and casual bird-watching. Life in the wilderness is grim and hazardous, the novel The Living relates, as settlers drown on open bays and slip beneath logjams, are asphyxiated by natural gas, and risk limbs and lose fingers as they learn to fell and burn out trees and saw logs. The weasel with whom Dillard engages in a sixty-second stare-down in Teaching a Stone to Talk the weasel whose brain she claims to have "been in," can summarize his days this way: "tracks in clay, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone" (TST, 14-15).
Underneath it all, Dillard has the sneaking suspicion that humans-and she herself-- are somewhat like the rest of the natural world, with its solid substance and its vagaries. "Skin was earth; it was soil," she decided sometime in her primary school years (AAC,295). The adult Dillard, with seven books behind her at the time, came to realize that a writer is very much like "an inchworm leading its dimwit life," mistaking steady ground for empty air, getting nowhere for hours, hesitating to swing from grassblade to grassblade even when it safely can (WL, 552). Writers too, once relieved of block, resistance, and panic attack, can be drawn to honey trees, if they let bees lead them. The parable here? "So a book leads its writer" (WL, 556). And books can have a life of their own, sometimes ejecting their own parts, as the starfish called the "sea star" disposes every now and then of one of its rays (WL, 559). For Dillard the natural world first rivets the watcher's attention to it. Then it invites her to make correspondences, connections, personal applications.
Her attentiveness is remarked on by virtually all the Dillard reviewers and scholars. Her watchful eye and her capacity for long scrutiny, careful notetaking, and painstaking remembering are obvious. That doing so is part of a personal code is a considered opinion, based on her own testimony. What does one do with a day? "I open my eyes," Dillard answers (HF, 12). How does one face a world of silent stones, whistling winds, and humming insects? "We are here to witness," she offers (TST, 72). There is so much to watch, and "humble" prose, honest writing, direct comment serves some fine purpose: "It praises the world by seeing it," she claims (LBF, 120).
Her sometimes awed and sometimes admiring watching wins Dillard plaudits from environmentalists, but what seems puzzling is her policy of nonintervention. There is never a hint that she is moved to save whales, contribute to the World Wildlife Fund, protest oil spills, campaign against the destruction of rain forests, push legislation against refrigerants that might expand the ozone hole, or do any other of a sundry of ecologically minded things. In her novel The Living, Dillard lets the Douglas firs fall, the cedars burn out, Seattle splay, and railroads invade the Cascades without a trace of judgment. In her autobiography, she gives Pittsburgh's upgrading of the quality of its air no more than an authorial nod. It seems that, just as female praying mantises devour their mates even while they are mating, humans change the landscape, drive species to flee or die, infect indigenous tribes with cholera, and spill toxins into water and air. In Dillard's world, these things happen. In her essay "The Deer at Providencia," she relates her witnessing a young deer's day-long struggle to free itself after it has been chained by Ecuadorian villagers. The struggle is futile. At the end of the day, the deer is killed, and the villagers attest that the struggle has tenderized the meat. Dillard narrates a male journalist's amazement at her passivity. She certainly isn't anything like his wife. Why? Because Dillard could watch and do nothing. She shrugs, "I looked detached, apparently, or hard, or calm, or focused, still. I don't know." Then she comments, "I was thinking .... I have thought a great deal about carnivoroushess; I eat meat. These things are not issues; they are mysteries" (TST, 64).
Hunting habits, slaughter customs are, it seems, matters of style and facts of life. Like a myriad of things in the nonhuman world (or the "inhuman" world, as she calls it in a deliberate or undeliberate slip, TST, 72), strange killings and unfeeling feedings beset the human world. Dillard is an active observer. She is not, however, an activist. She watches like mad; she records what she observes; she refrains from recommending that anyone do anything about what she sees. No one takes her to task for it. Bruce Ronda simply notes: "In Dillard's writing, one feels the awful inner tension between wanting to control and wanting to let go; one sees the amoral careen of nature that separates it from our sympathy."
A year after he had penned the comment above, Ronda referred to Dillard's dealings with God and nature as a "dialogue with the Other and others." About the phenomenon of "otherness" in her work, he seems correct. But to call it "dialogue" does not seem quite right. Dillard's writing, with the exception of Encounters with Chinese Writers and The Living, tends to interior monologue. The dialogue of what is conventionally deemed prayer seems notably absent in Dillard. And she does not seem particularly inclined to talk to her pets or plants. Perhaps Dillard does not do anything about the deer at Providencia- or about any other ferocity- because she cannot. She cannot speak to the deer, nor to the villagers who take deer captive, nor to God about the deer. She doesn't even record that she has engaged the quizzical male journalist or the other writers present on the subject. Her response is noninteractive, even paralyzed. She can speak of the episode only after the fact, it appears- to anonymous readers.
While there is some evidence, then, of fellow-feeling for the world of nature and creatures in Dillard (for a cat, the weasel, the intriguing Tinker Creek), there is also abundant evidence of estrangement, of an overwhelming sense of separateness. Just as she displays ambivalence toward God, Dillard exhibits an ambivalence toward nature. And ambivalence can be paralyzing. She is moved to tenderness, and she looks askance when some fiendish phenomenon seems to rebuke her. Some years ago she admitted:
With nature and with creatures, as with humans, propinquity can engender love; familiarity can also breed contempt: both. Dillard's is not the friendliest or most communitarian vision of creation. It is beset with alienation.
Dillard on the Place of the Human
The reader of The Living would be tempted to say that the lot of the human on this planet is to look around, arrange things a bit, make peace insofar as possible with whatever is, face the inevitability of death, and just live. The relationship of humans with the environment seems at best a matter of peaceful coexistence and at worst repeated adversarial encounters. As the settlers eke a living from the land, struggle is the persistent theme. The novel yields in exaggerated form the sense communicated in earlier Dillard works that, no matter how well known or how closely confronted, creation and Creator remain "others." This seems to lead inescapably to a kind of anthropocentrism.
No matter how sensitively Dillard writes of mushrooms and raccoons, she can write only from a very human perspective and with very human perception. She does not entirely achieve "a feeling for the organism" on the empathic level. In keeping with a literary, philosophical, and theological trend of the times, Dillard turns to her own experience for validation. As a result, she can seem not only anthropocentric but also egocentric, even when her zoological and botanical habitats are chock full. The problem seems to be the distance between the human and other species. Bruce Ronda finds that in Living by Fiction, for example, Dillard "has taken her search for the bridge between self and nature down a long dead-end path." She "edges," he believes, "toward the trap of subjectivity." Grounds for claiming that the gap may be un-bridgeable can be found in her affirmation that the quest for "meaning" has severe limits, including those imposed by nature: "The boundaries of sense are actually quite clear. We commonly (if tacitly) agree that the human world has human meaning which we can discover, and the natural world does not" (LBF, 138). The comment raise serious questions as to just who the human being is and what the human being "means" in relation to God and nature, as far as Dillard is concerned. Is there a consistent ecotheology of the human in Dillard? Is there a coherent anthropology?
Humans, it has to be admitted, make only cameo appearances in Dillard's nonfiction. The most memorable are Julie Norwich, the seven-year-old burn victim in Holy the Firm and Dave Rahm, the professor and daredevil pilot who crashes in Teaching a Stone to Talk. We do not get to know either very well. Dillard herself is the most openly exposed person in her books, and there is much that is never disclosed about her either. We follow her independent meanderings, are let in on her philosophic puzzlements, cosmic questions, and artistic aspirations, and we share her humor. But what she offers is episodic and also reserved. We know nothing of her romances (or her two divorces), her griefs, angers, hurts, private joys, deepest longings. We emerge from reading Dillard with the sense that she, and all humans, can be profoundly related to the wider world and yet severely disjunct from it too. The word "mystery," which she uses in relation to God and natural phenomena, is apt for the unfathomable and often misfit human too.
There are those moments in Dillard, however, when the human is intimately related to everything. She watches rotifers, daphnia, copepods under her microscope and exults:
There is a unity to all creation. The human is the participant who can enjoy the commonality of things and, better yet, comment on it. The human can realize too that her whole life and that of everything and everyone else is "wholly gratuitous," contingent, "not in any real sense necessary per se to the world or its creator" (PTC, 127). It is this unity and gratuity above all which prompts Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to its last word: "praise" (PTC, 260).
And yet the human usually is so separated, so at loose ends. Human consciousness is blessing and curse. Humans are aware and yet blinkered. "We don't know what's going on here," complains Dillard. "Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf" (PTC, 16). We don't know how to bear with the "clumsy... business of reproducing" and the bloodiness of "dying by the billions" in a world of beetles and barnacles. The trouble is, she urges, that "we are moral creatures... in an amoral world" (PTC, 172). But humans can't seem successfully to impose their morality at all on themselves. Sometimes it seems to Dillard that humans are merely "puffed clay, blown up and set down" (PTC, 213). Humans are small, brief, discrete. Worse yet, the humans know it. "It is ironic," Dillard muses, "that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator--our very self-consciousness-- is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends" (PTC, 81).
This anthropology of the human in the double-bind persists in Dillard's writing beyond Pilgrim, from which the quotations in the two preceding paragraphs were drawn. The human is both in unity and in radical disjunction with the world of creation; the human is midstream between creator and other creatures but can neither swim nor strut a tightrope bridge to either shore. All that humans have to hang on to, Clare Fishburn observes in Dillard's novel, is other humans. "Here is a solid planet," the moribund Fishburn reflects. "Among these fixed and enduring features wander the flimsy people. The earth rolls down and the people die; their survivors derive solace from clinging, not to the 'rocks, not to the cliffs, not to the trees, but to each other" (TL, 351). Fishburn knows too well how tentative and tenuous that grip is.
It is difficult to develop an ethic of responsibility or an ethic of care on behalf of the environment from such an anthropological vision as Fishburn's-- or Dillard's. The human seems, more often than not, a maladapted amphibian, aware of several worlds, trying to live around or through them, but not quite of them. Dillard gives the impression that she finds the human sphere of influence, the capacity to transform the surroundings, rather small, and "bipolarity" so abounds that human judgments about how to live and what to do on the planet may not prove trustworthy. Even Jim Cheney, who dubiously hails Dillard as an example of "feminist postmodernism" and sees her as advocating a "ritualized or ceremonial relationship to the world," has to admit that the stance of humans for her is essentially that of "survivors wandering awed on a wreck we have (or might) come to care for." By "caring for" he hardly means environmental action or taking up the cause of biodiversity in a parliament of creatures? He simply means that humans have the capacity for developing a fondness for the earth.
The words "seeing" and "vision" occur and recur in interpretations of Dillard's works. It appears that Dillard steadily communicates that this is what the ambiguous human species is for: looking around and taking note. Those who happen to be artists, among whom she numbers herself, have the task of communicating their visions. Whether such transmission improves the plight of the artist, homo sapiens, endangered species, or the planet is another open question.
Even about art, then, or any human making, Dillard remains ambivalent. "We are created, created," she chants, "sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone" (HF, 61-62). Her readers are led to this sort of conclusion: stars make helium, weeds make seed, fish make roe, spiders spin webs, muskrats burrow holes, and people make flutes, cloaks of animal skin, skyscrapers, cellophane wrappers, straw skirts, frisbees, goulash, swimming pools, poems, universities, communion wine, digital watches, books, shish-kabob, and babies. Whether these matter a whit or mean anything, God knows. Or maybe god knows. That seems to be Dillard's anthropology, her ecotheology of the human in brief. Homo sapiens is also homo faber, and so people do these things with whatever the planet makes available. So, in their way, do other species. God perhaps has set it up that way. Evolution, in any case, seems to have.
What Does the Mangrove Mean?
Except on the score that Annie Dillard pays such close attention to and exhibits such heightened awareness of the diversity of species, the complex web of interrelationships, and the impeccable uniqueness of each and every thing, she defies placement in any camp of environmental ethicists or ecological thinkers. She seems to concur on a point or two with ecofeminists, as, for example, in the insight (implicit in her novel) that Western Christianity, capitalism, and hierarchical dualism set the stage for environmental degradation (cf. TL, 295).
That insight notwithstanding, she makes no prescriptions for rethinking Western religion, economics, or the heritage of Cartesian thought. Only in her autobiography do we get a sense that being a woman has posed some challenges for her. She declines to declare war on the patriarchal and rocentric social order, and she bafflingly insists on referring to the generic writer in the singular as "he."
Religious denominations have their emptinesses, and teachings have their transitoriness, Dillard readily agrees, but she rather enjoys going to church. In 1988 she decided that her strongest affinity was with Catholicism, which she admires for "the universality of the body of believers," whom she sees as a multicultural, multiracial, multi-generational liturgical assembly. "Sophia" makes no appearance in ex-Presbyterian Dillard's writings, and one would never know from Dillard, for all her historical consciousness, that goddesses had ever been worshiped. Native Americans are admirable, but hers (in the novel) are Catholics and Methodists who suffer through the abuses of Americanization. She has met some Chinese, but she expresses no interest in the meditative and nature-harmonizing religions of the Orient. Dillard has been favorably compared with Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, both superb writers about the land. But she does not leap from pondside to ethical outcry, "Simplify, simplify," as Thoreau does, critiquing the acquisitive masses' lifestyle. She does not denounce or renounce wolf-slaying, as does Aldo Leopold. Nor does she develop a theory of biotic pyramid and an ecocentric "land ethic" like the one which arose from Leopold's seasons in sand counties and wilderness. Her ambivalence about God, the natural world, and the human seems to be the underlying reason why Dillard does not take these steps.
Dillard dazzlingly and fearsomely expresses what most people never pause to notice. That facility with language and capacity for sitting still and remaining awake to detail constitute her great gift. Her central contribution to ecotheology is that she displays, in minutiae, what has been and what still exists in a number of significant bioregions. She also exhibits for the ecological thinker that familiar twentieth-century phenomenon: an inability to move from observation to ethic, a sense of personal insignificance and alienation, a tendency to let things alone. There is a God, and he is up to something or other. There is wonder in this world, and that prompts a God-ward "Hooray!" There are gods all over the place, and we honor them with our attentions, appreciations, or fixations. Like God, nature has its darknesses and its lights. It moves us and frightens us away. Or it leaves us dumbfounded, watching, and doing nothing. Humans watch and see and become entangled in mystery. We make things, we ceaselessly eat, and we die. The earth turns, galaxies swirl, and new things ever arise. God may or may not have in mind the way things turn about and will turn out. Such seems to be a summation of Dillard's theology and metaphysic.
For Dillard, humankind in the biosphere, who may be a group of ecoethical do-nothings, are very like mangrove islands. A mangrove is-land begins when a mangrove tree, complete with twisted roots, is cut loose from shoreline by seawash and wind. Against all odds, it floats and grows, collecting debris, salt, and its own seed. The tree makes its own island. Dillard compares the island's bizarre "muck of soil" to the morass of "human culture." Mangrove islands are not definitively going anywhere. So? Dillard urges:
Is our mangrove island mystical? Should it take a theological turn? Does it have ecological responsibilities? Dillard will not say. She will, however, tell us elegant things about all sorts of island phenomena. As far as any "shoulds" are concerned, one is left with the conclusion of Lynn Ross-Bryant about the ambivalent Dillard: "Mystery remains."
1. Philip Yancy, "A Face Aflame," Christianity Today 22 (1978): 961.
2. These descriptions of Dillard occur, consecutively, in: Lynn Ross-Bryant, "The Silence of Nature," Religion and Literature 22 (1990): 80; Bruce Ronda, "Annie Dillard and the Fire of God," Christian Century 100 (1983): 485-86; Eugene H. Peterson, "Annie Dillard: With Her Eyes Open," Theology Today 43 (1986): 178, 180.
3. Colleen Smith, "Annie Dillard: Tinker Creek's Pilgrim Catholic," Our Sunday Visitor 83 (26 February 1995): 10.
4. Yancy, 960.
5. Linda Smith, Annie Dillard (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991), esp. 37-40.
6. Mary Cantwell, "A Pilgrim's Progress," New York Times Magazine, April 26, 1992: 42.
7. Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, in Three by Annie Dillard (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 525. Hereafter indicated in the text as AAC.
8. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, in Three by Annie Dillard, 570, 594. Hereafter indicated as WL.
9. Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 32, 65, 136, 183. Hereafter indicated as LBF.
10. In the Clare-transformation chapters the language often takes on the lushness of Dillard's diction in the three "naturalist" nonfiction books. Before these chapters the style of the novel tends to be stripped, taciturn. Cf. The Living (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), chaps 41, 51, 55, 58, 65, and esp. 68. Hereafter, TL.
11. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, In Three by Annie Dillard, 76. Hereafter indicated as PTC.
12. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 69. Hereafter indicated as TST.
13. Annie Dillard, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974), 23. Hereafter indicated as TPW.
14. Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 61. Hereafter indicated as HF.
15. Cf., for example, Dillard's comments on Christ and the fish symbol in PTC, 180, and on the incarnation, Eucharist, and cosmic Christ in HF, 47-48, 64, 67-68.
16. John E. Becker, "Science and the Sacred: From Walden to Tinker Creek," Thought 62 (1987): 408, 411.
17. The expression is credited to Nobel prize-winning biologist Barbara McClintock and appears in Elizabeth A. Johnson, Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 63-64. It also is treated in Anne M. Clifford, "Feminist Perspectives on Science," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 8 (1992): 65-90.
18. Thomas Berry with Thomas Clarke, Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1991), 16.
19. Cf. James E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979; reprint 1987), esp. chap. 8.
20. Johnson, 68; Michael Dowd, Earthspirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1991), 43.
21. Ronda, 486.
22. Bruce A. Ronda, "Annie Dillard's Fictions to Live By," Christian Century 101 (1984): 1066.
23. The concept of "otherness" in Dillard also appears in Ross-Bryant, 79-80: "It is only because all share in the web of life... that she can allow herself to appreciate the otherness, the difference. . . . [M]uch of the power of her work comes from the experience of otherness as terrifying . . ."
24. Ronda (1984), 1066.
25. Robert C. Fuller argues that our present scientific cosmology and our understanding of evolution point to the human's "responsible" role in "the larger ecosystem." Given our present perception of the wholesale "interdependence" of creation, humans are morally impelled, he believes, to sustain organisms and life processes by active interventions. Cf. Fuller, Ecology of Care: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Self and Moral Obligation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 11-13, 63.
26. B. Jill Carroll deals with the question of the "bipolarity" of God and the paradoxical ways of the universe. She feels that Sallie McFague does not adequately treat this "bipolarity" and implies that Dillard succeeds at expressing it. Cf. Carroll, "Models of God or Models of Us? On the Theology of Sallie McFague," Encounter 52 (1991): 187-90.
27. Jim Cheney, "'The Water of Separation': Myth and Ritual in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6 (1990): 42, 54, 62.
28. Such a parliament with humans has been proposed by Thomas Berry in public lectures.
29. Colleen Smith calls attention to Dillard's pre-Catholic "theological smorgasbord" approach to religions and denominations. She notes that Dillard claims to have no "issues" with the church and calls typical Catholics' problems with the institution "secular, historical issues" which "will change..." Cf. Colleen Smith, 11.
30. Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 91.
31. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949; reprint 1989), 202-4, 214ff.
32. Ross-Bryant, 84.
By Pamela A. Smith
PAMELA A. SMITH, a Sister of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who teaches at several
colleges in the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton, Pa., area, is the author of four books, most
recently WomanGifts: Biblical Models.for Forming Church (Twenty-Third Publications, 1994).
This article is based on a presentation at the College Theology Society's 1994 convention.
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