(Painting: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, Thomas Cole)
Annie Dillard’s essays are like entries that build into a journal that she shares with her readers; her intent observations of nature provokes her to draw connections from seemingly commonplace individual occurrences to larger, metaphysical concepts. In her essays, Dillard explores nature’s beauty and contrasting darkness, how humans think versus how animals live by action, and whether these patterns are determined by a larger decree. Dillard’s detailed descriptions of landscapes and evocative imagery of occurrences in the wild in “The Deer at Providencia” and “Living Like Weasels” demonstrate her inherent awareness of the complexities of natural phenomena. It is this consciousness, shown in her observations, that leads Dillard to ponder the mysteries of nature’s darkness, its significance to the world, and human consciousness in imaginative worlds in “Forest & Shore” and “Sojourner”.
For a moment, imagine a panoramic view of a landscape from above. A placid river runs between lush, green trees and rolling mountains. The water reflects sunlight that shines through fleecy clouds. Our impression of serenity in Thomas Cole’s painting, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, commonly known as The Oxbow, reflects Dillard’s initial admiration for nature’s charms. She illustrates nature’s simple beauty: the woods, against “a deep blue body of sky [looks] like miracle itself, complete with miracle’s nonchalance”, and in a pond, “six thousand lily pads…have blossomed and spread to a green horizontal plane that is terra firma to plodding blackbirds, and tremulous ceiling to black leeches, crayfish, and carp” (“Living Like Weasels” 12-13). Nature teems with beauty, or at least it seems to upon our first glance.
Cole’s and Dillard’s nuanced representations of nature in their works reflect the complexities of our real world. While Cole presents a sweeping scenery that viewers may initially romanticize, Dillard depicts her real experiences of beauty in the natural world that we as readers may, if we only skim her work, think to generalize nature as completely virtuous. However, Dillard furthers her observations of environments with willful analysis, and this pushes her to look beyond her superficial impression of nature’s beauty and notice the darkness that lies between such apparent serenity.
Before examining Dillard’s exploration of natural paradoxes like beauty versus darkness, we must first consider how exactly she comes to be aware of them. Her narration in “Forest & Shore” is a metaphor for her own progression of thought on natural phenomena throughout her essays. In this essay, Dillard talks directly to us readers, and guides us to visualize ourselves step past the edge of trees of a familiar forest and “[savor] the transition” from the “gloom” to the bright, “long clean beach” (“Forest & Shore” Par. 4). As viewers may settle for The Oxbow’s apparent beauty by first glance, it is just as easy to adhere to one’s familiarity with nature’s surface tranquility: one can recall “the dear and familiar nature of trees, their strength and their companionship…You fall asleep, year by year, in the shade” (Par. 2-3). But Dillard hints that there is danger in staying static. She tests our cognitive audacity: “But what if once you look up? Suddenly there is an edge…Who would have thought that there could be an end to trees?” (Par. 4). What lies beyond our familiar knowledge of the natural world is a mystery we can choose to explore or ignore. This rhetorical question is Dillard’s invitation for us to enter her essays to approach our natural world with inquisitiveness, discover its complexities, and work to understand them.
Once we as readers accept this invitation, we begin to look more deeply into Dillard’s observations and thoughts and see cruelty among beauty. As Dillard encounters a wild weasel in the woods, she does not merely glance at it, but watches it earnestly. Though the weasel appears innocuous, it is vicious, and kills “more [animal] bodies than he can eat” by “splitting the jugular vein…or crunching the brain”, and even “[sockets] into [a human’s] hand deeply as a rattlesnake” (“Weasels” 11). In her article, “‘Choosing the Given with a Fierce and Pointed Will’: Annie Dillard and Risk-Taking in Contemporary Literature”, Terri Brown-Davidson applauds Dillard’s “‘I dare myself to’ attitude” as a call to action to “cast off our shallowness [and refuse] to back down from issues that matter, the spiritual, emotional, and ethical quandaries” (Par. 4). By daring herself to make detailed observations of the weasel, Dillard exposes the violent tension in tiny discrepancies, like a small animal’s ferocity, in the environment’s seeming peacefulness. Yet she also recounts that a human once shot an eagle out of the sky to find “the dry skull of a weasel fixed by [its] jaws” (“Weasels” 11-12). Through this observation Dillard uncovers a puzzle: How can weasels at times hold power over other creatures, yet suddenly fall victim to an eagle’s bite? Perhaps the weasel’s death serves as justice for the harm it does to its prey. But Dillard’s further exploration into this dark side of nature in “The Deer at Providencia” refutes this notion: Dillard sees that nature punishes even the “‘pretty’, delicate…and thin-skinned” deer that she, other American travelers, and an indigenous community encounter in the Amazon jungle and decide to kill for meat (“Deer” 98). The deer has done no creature harm. Suffering does not choose its victims out of justice, but by random. Her rhetorical use of quotations around the word “pretty” emphasizes that the natural world is not as peaceful as it seems. Dillard’s gruesome imagery exposes suffering’s flagrancy and persistence: “The deer had scratched its own neck with its hooves. The raw underside of is neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the muscles” (99). The deer suffers under the humans’ rope until it is killed. When it fights its fate, it only hurts itself more. Imagine that we as viewers emulate Dillard’s intent observation and reflection as we evaluate the nature in The Oxbow. As we commit ourselves to studying the painting, we will begin to notice foreboding signs of violence in Cole’s ominous shading of the clouds, dark streaks of rain, and bare, split branches, among the serenity of the rest of his landscape. Such violent ironies do not hide in the shadows of our tranquil surroundings, but exist in the open, if we only look closely enough.
A sudden awareness of the randomness in causing or receiving suffering for the human, weasel, eagle, and deer may shock readers. Dillard builds that shock by bringing to our awareness a vicious cycle of life, cruelty, and death in nature. Brown-Davidson ruminates on the role of suffering in this vicious cycle: “suffering encompasses the richness of [life’s] existence, which is necessarily stuffed full of terror and anguish as well as joy” (Par. 10). Dillard’s essays then show that beauty and cruelty, life and death not only coexist in the natural world but perpetuate each other. Though cruelty is vicious, it is a necessary component in the cycle. As Brown-Davidson asserts, the suffering of one life contributes to another’s “ability to ‘rise from the ashes’” (Par. 11). Without cruelty, the weasel and eagle do not eat their prey, and Dillard and the other humans in the Amazon do not receive nourishment from tender deer meat. Meanwhile, in Cole’s parallel representation of the natural world, as thunderstorms darken the skies and wreck some trees, they also deliver blue skies, a full river, and dense, green leaves.
While Dillard’s thought progression reveals that cruelty is necessary in the wild, her detailed descriptions of violence still push us to question: What determines that there needs to be so much darkness in the world? Evaluating her diction can help orient our approach to this problem. Dillard explicitly uses “Providencia” as the name of the Amazonian village in which she and her fellow three Americans encounter and kill the deer. But according to the Spanish Law Dictionary, “providencia” also refers to a legal order or official ruling (“providencia”). Writer Pamela Smith extends Dillard’s implicitly legal diction in her article, “The ecotheology of Annie Dillard: A Study in Ambivalence”, and offers that nature’s inherent cruelty and unpredictable fate is determined by the overpowering “law of nature” by which “accident, luck, unpredictability, nonsense, murder, and default all come into play” (Par. 26). Smith’s notion of a “natural law” can in fact explain the existence of nature’s vicious cycle of life, cruelty and death. The deer Dillard observes must symbolize how individual lives in this world are helpless under the ruling of suffering by some all-encompassing edict. But is natural law’s order on cruelty unfair? “The Deer at Providencia” is the only essay in which Dillard is with other humans, and all other human characters in this essay react to the unpredictable cruelty that nature plays on the world impulsively: the metropolitan men Dillard travels to Providencia with “[can’t] bear to see a creature in agony” and “go crazy” because “they had not known…that life could permit them personally such pain” (“Deer” 64-65). Yet Dillard, unlike the city men, watches the suffering “detached…hard, or calm” (64). Is Dillard emotionally distant from the deer’s suffering because she lacks compassion? Smith insists that Dillard’s apathy is due to her awareness that “hunting habits, slaughter customs are…facts of life”, necessities (Smith Par. 32). Dillard’s question: “Gentlemen of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?”, suggests that they do not understand cruelty’s place in the world because they have not been as exposed to the wild as she has, and therefore have not had the time to observe and question such natural occurrences (“Deer” 64). She admits, “I have thought a great deal about carnivorousness; I eat meat. These things are not issues; they are mysteries” (100). By acknowledging cruelty’s necessity in nature, our initial shock will soothe into calm acceptance.
Dillard illuminates that our natural world is a place where the paradoxes of peace and violence, beauty and cruelty, life and death are inseparable. Returning to Dillard’s diction, “Providencia” thus characterizes the entire natural world that encompasses all of her essays, not only the Amazonian village it explicitly refers to. Perhaps we should accept the paradoxical cycle of life, cruelty, and death because no life in “Providencia” is above natural law.
Dillard tries to accept this persistently, but something holds her back. Even though her perceptive disposition leads to her awareness of cruelty’s role in the wild, she still quivers to accept cruelty’s inevitability because it is so unpredictable: she utters “poor little thing” at the dying deer, then suppresses pity by deeming it “a ridiculous thing to say” (“Deer” 66). Her internal conflict touches the edge of what Smith considers as the human “tension between wanting to control and wanting to let go”-wanting to understand the mysteries of our world and wanting to stop analyzing them (Par. 32). Dillard’s innate curiosity drives her to contemplate if nature can teach humans how to let go of our inclination to overthink and instead live like weasels: “I would like to learn, or remember, how to live… I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical sense” (“Weasels” 15). Dillard solidifies in “Sojourner” that though we humans are subject to natural law’s vicious cycle, we cannot yet predict how natural law regulates what is to suffer, when, and for the vitality of what other life. Does “Providencia” have a predetermined destiny for beauty and cruelty? She meditates: natural law, or “the planet itself is…a wet ball flung across nowhere…life seems cursed to be a wiggle merely, and a wandering without end” (“Sojourner” 151). However mysterious nature’s fate for us is though, Dillard advocates that “we may as well please our sensibilities and, with as much spirit as we can muster, go out with a buck and wing” (152). Perhaps if humans live like the weasel, “open to time and death…remembering nothing”, we can embrace the positives natural law thrusts upon us, like the “terrific” feeling of eating “delicate fish-flesh, fresh and mild”, and swallow our pain if we end up on the unfair side of its ruling (“Weasels” 3; “Deer” 99). To live in the “wild” sense is then to be swayed by the order of nature instead of resist it, a way to escape the tension in waiting for cruelty to hit, though it is impossible to escape its pain when it does. Because the vicious cycle determines that “death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part”, shouldn’t humans also live in the moment and take pleasure in nature’s beauty while we can (“Weasels” 16)?
In her article, “The Silence of Nature”, Lynn Ross-Bryant complicates Dillard’s consideration of letting go of our human tendency to overanalyze the world and living instinctively like the weasel as the better way of life for humans: “Desirable as that unity of the [physical] senses is, and as necessary as it is for full human living, self consciousness [is truly] what it is to be human” (90). Yet ironically, Dillard delves deeper into “the human world of reflection” in order to arrive at the value of animalistic instinct in a mysterious world (90). Ross-Bryant therefore criticizes that Dillard’s entire progression of thought in her essays is in itself a circle of irony of unanswered and unanswerable questions.
But recall Dillard’s invitation to us to explore these mysteries with her in “Forest & Shore”. She urges that we “[savor] the transition” from the familiar to the uncertain (“F&S” Par. 4). Also remember that Dillard’s inherent awareness of her surroundings is what allows her to notice the paradoxes of beauty and cruelty, action and consciousness in the first place. Brown-Davidson challenges Ross-Bryant’s criticism, and argues that Dillard’s essays and their exploration of metaphysical matters through observing natural phenomena are the outcome of her desire to understand these mysteries. Dillard’s work is evidence in itself that this thirst for knowledge, and to venture past the shore that separates the known and unknown, is more intuitive than Ross-Bryant believes. Brown-Davidson praises Dillard’s sentimental analysis of these mysteries as purposeful instead of redundant: “Dillard is one of the most fearless writers I have ever read because…she sees loss, suffering, ecstasy, grief…the meaning of life, the questions of life, the huge patternings of our cosmos, in every [natural occurrence]” (Brown-Davidson Par. 3). Ross-Bryant therefore mistakenly regards Dillard’s conscious approach to living by action as self-contradictory. Pushing our superficial understanding of the world and investigating “gaps [to find] the knowledge of ourselves and the world we would lay claim to if we dared” is precisely humanity’s one true instinct (Par. 22). Humans are then naturally inquisitive, just as weasels and other creatures are naturally physical. Likewise, if viewers scrutinize Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow for long enough, they are bound to discern the relationship between the wrecked tree, grey skies, and otherwise serene river.
However, Dillard evokes frustration in following our human consciousness; doing so pushes us to figuratively uproot our superficial notion about the world as all beautiful until “[a forest] is no longer a forest but a fringe of the real; it is illusion, and its life is a lie” (“F&S” Par. 4). Smith furthers this thought: “With nature and with creatures, as with humans, propinquity can engender love; familiarity can also breed contempt” (Smith Par. 35). Once we recognize the paradoxical vicious cycle and natural law, the familiar soil that held our roots “gives way to sand”, and our inquiry launches our loose roots off the shore and into a figurative sea of mystery (“F&S” Par. 4). Dillard continues in “Sojourner” that human consciousness becomes like a mangrove floating in the “alien ocean”: “its fate and direction are random…it may starve or dry…on the poisonous sea” (“Sojourner” 150). Despite the progress Dillard makes from observing natural phenomena to discovering the purpose of suffering and human instinct to explore the complexities of the natural world, she never completely understands why the law of nature seems to execute the vicious cycle erratically, or why human instinct differs from animal instinct. Smith concludes that Dillard’s uncertainties reveal a darkness in human consciousness itself: “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” (Smith Par. 49). As Dillard’s mangrove of unanswered questions floats through the vast sea, she is distressed that though intuitive, consciousness leads to “enervating thoughts, the thoughts of despair” when we do not find answers to our questions (“Sojourner” 152). What is the value of our consciousness if it does not allow us to find answers to our questions?
The only certainty Dillard arrives at is that the mystery of nature’s patterns of beauty and suffering and natural law is beyond our ability to interpret. Though a mangrove may have no clear destination, its persistence, just like that of Dillard’s progression of thought in her essays, is “beautiful”, and we can turn “the word ‘nowhere’ [to] our cue [to turn] drift to dance” (“Sojourner” 152). Continuing on this optimistic note, Thomas Cole’s depiction of the conflicting realities of nature, no matter how perplexing, is still received as art. If we as humans can appreciate conflicts in The Oxbow as art, can’t we also appreciate the mystery of natural law’s rule on the vicious cycle of life, cruelty, and death in nature? Earlier when depicting the vicious cycle, Dillard juxtaposes delicate diction with dark imagery, which suggests even darkness is nuanced: “Was the whole weasel still attached to [the eagle’s] feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat [it], cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?” (“Weasels” 12). Perhaps the tangible – blue skies, lily pads, and marine life – is not nature’s only source of beauty. Who knows where our innate human consciousness and eagerness to find meaning in the esoteric will lead us once we cast off the shore? Consciousness may find beauty in cruelty and beauty in the ultimate enigma of natural law. As Dillard meditates: “Whether these thoughts are true or not I find less interesting than the possibilities for beauty they may hold” (“Sojourner” 152).
Brown-Davidson, Terri. “‘Choosing the Given with a Fierce and Pointed Will’: Annie Dillard and Risk-Taking in Contemporary Literature.” The Hollins Critic 30.2 (1993): Literature Resource Center [Gale]. Web.
Cole, Thomas. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm. 1836. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1982. Print.
“Living Like Weasels.” 11-16.
“The Deer at Providencia.” 60-66.
Dillard, Annie. “Forest & Shore.” Editorial. Harper’s Magazine Jan. 1985: 24. Harper’s Magazine. Web.
“Providencia.” Spanish Law Dictionary, Peter Collin Publishing. Ed. P. H. Collin. London: Peter Collin Publishing, 1999. Credo Reference. Web.
Ross-Bryant, Lynn. “The Silence of Nature.” Religion & Literature 22.1 (1990): 79-94. JSTOR. Web.
Smith, Pamela. “The Ecotheology of Annie Dillard: A Study in Ambivalence.” Cross Currents. Fall 1995: 341-58. ProQuest. Web