books, nature, writing

The Force That Drives the Flower

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.” One interviewer 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 contemplative words. I think about that now as the seasons change and I find myself saddened by the images of nature dying off and bedding down for sleep. I want to tell of it, reflect on it, write it – not take its picture . . . but i may reconsider if the composition calls out.

Annie Dillard 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 spent four seasons living near Tinker Creek, taking up residence on an island in Puget Sound in a wooded room furnished with “one enormous window, one cat, one spider and one person.” For the next two years she asked herself questions about time, reality, sacrifice death, and the will of God.

She spent her time outdoors, walking and camping, being there with nature in an area surrounded by forests, creeks, mountains, and a myriad of animal life. When she was inside, she mostly read. After those four seasons, Annie began to write about her experiences there by the creek (challenged to write a book herself because the one she was reading at the moment was particularly bad).

She started with a journal, then transposed it all to notecards until the journal reached 20-plus volumes. She was timid about presenting what would become her book publicly and even considered publishing it under a man’s name. It took her about 8 months to turn the notecards into the Pulitzer-Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She was so absorbed that she spent 15-16 hours a day writing, cut off from society, world news, living on coffee and coke. She lost 30 pounds and all of her plants died. After her Pulitzer win, all those who had rejected her works before she was famous, now clamored for her poems.

Seeing as how much i do love my winged creatures, and how much I admire Annie Dillard and her experience with nature and writing, i thought i would share the above linked title to the short story and the excerpt below, written in 1973 and printed in The Atlantic Monthly in 1977.

ENJOY!

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The Force That Drives the Flower
by Annie Dillard

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I wakened myself last night with my own shouting. It must have been that terrible yellow plant I saw pushing through the flood-damp soil near the log by Tinker Creek, the plant as fleshy and featureless as a slug, that erupted through the floor of my brain as I slept, and burgeoned into the dream of fecundity that woke me up.

I was watching two huge luna moths mate. Luna moths are those fragile ghost moths, fairy moths, whose five-inch wings are swallow-tailed, a pastel green bordered in silken lavender. From the hairy head of the male sprouted two enormous, furry antennae that trailed down past his ethereal wings. He was on top of the female, hunching repeatedly with a horrible animal vigor.

It was the perfect picture of utter spirituality and utter degradation. I was fascinated and could not turn away my eyes. By watching them 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.

And then the eggs hatched and the bed was full of fish. I was standing across the room in the doorway, staring at the bed. The eggs hatched before my eyes, on my bed, and a thousand chunky fish swarmed there in a viscid slime. The fish were firm and fat, black and white, with triangular bodies and bulging eyes. I watched in horror as they squirmed three feet deep, swimming and oozing about in the glistening, transparent slime. Fish in the bed!—and I awoke. My ears still rang with the foreign cry that had been my own voice.

Fool, I thought: child, you child, you ignorant, innocent fool. What did you expect to see—angels? For it was understood in the dream that the bed full of fish was my own fault, that if I had turned away from the mating moths the hatching of their eggs wouldn’t have happened, or at least would have happened in secret, elsewhere. I brought it on myself, this slither, this swarm.

I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.

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for the rest of this story . . . go HERE.

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