A Work in Progress

For a genre as broadly stereotyped in the public view as environmental writing is, there is great diversity in the subject’s leading voices. Some writers’ scientific backgrounds are highly apparent. Some writers work reads less like “nature writing” and more like the work of a social critic. Some are poetic while others read like an entry in a technical journal. Still, there are some threads that can be tracked across multiple—perhaps most—writers. One of these unifying themes is that nature does not plan “creation of all for the happiness of one” (Muir, pg  87); in particular, not for the happiness of humans.

This assertion seems to form a central argument for Annie Dillard. Her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek poses the question of nature’s “purpose” and then largely fails to resolve it—at least in human terms. The essayist and conservation pioneer John Muir, in “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” relays this same sentiment, though he grapples with the topic less as a question, and seems far more ready to accept the irresolvable nature of it. These approaches demonstrate a fundamental difference between the two authors. One is still contending with the fact that nature does not exist for the benefit of all in it, while the other seems ready, not only to accept this, but almost seems to revel in it.

This difference is very apparent right from the outset of the two works. In the very first chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard relays an encounter she had with a giant water bug, a large aquatic insect that predates many small vertebrates, by liquefying their innards and sucking them out. She describes being “bewildered and appalled” (pg 8) by what she witnesses, and uses her tumultuous emotions so pose the very question of the purpose of nature’s very cruelties. Quoting from the Quran, she asks “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest” (pg 9). The way she sets up the passage, it might be easy for the reader to assume that this question relates solely to the giant water bug incident, but in reality, this passage, not even ten pages into the book, reveals her mission and her purpose, and the horror that prompts her to state this as her mission sets the tone for the rest of book.

Muir, too sets his take on this question to paper early in his writing. He writes that “the world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts” (pg 86). He states this following a tale as violent, or more so, than the one Dillard relayed—a story of an alligator grabbing and devouring a man’s dog after the man tried to kill the creature by wrestling it down with a knife. He then relates how alligators are frequently viewed as the works of the devil, along with all manner of other creatures and plants and elements that are harmful to humans. This prompts his observation that nature cannot truly be for the benefit of humans—a comment which he then broadens by suggesting that nature is not really for any one aspect of nature. “The venomous beasts, thorny plants, and deadly diseases” exist for their own sake, and nature does not care if they harm the rest of the world in their existence, becaue nature does not care about the rest of the world.

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