The Cruelty of Nature

Dillard creates a remarkable sense of contrast in the middle part of her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by using the chapter “Fecundity” to upend the reverent tenor that had dominated the book, up until this point. Throughout the book, Dillard has appeared as a sort-of translator. She takes scientific principles and weaves them into an engaging and richly poetic book that makes them accessible to all. And generally, she takes a tone of wonderment at the complexity of nature. She spends pages marveling at the complex veining in a goldfish’s’ fins and she depicts the life and death of a male praying mantis as though from a romance novel, thus giving a powerful surge of emotion to what might otherwise be dry topics.

But then she enters the chapter titled “Fecundity”, and I almost want to say that the wheels come of the train here, but I suppose that isn’t quite fair. In this chapter, the reverence for the complexities and intricacies of nature seem to be replaced with something akin to pure contempt. She writes how:

“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that bird 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, ad that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori” (162).

I find the obvious change in tone to be jarring, as a reader, and interesting, analytically. Jarring, because it occurs with little preamble or warning; interesting, because the “miracle” of new growth seems to be one of the things least likely to cause someone marveling at the processes of life to lose faith in the process. I have a hard time imaging Thoreau or Leopold or Muir declaring the death of older generations and the birth of new ones to be anything but another perfect example of the sublimity of nature.

I understand, in a sense the turn that she makes, and the place from which Dillard comes when she makes these observations. But I find it interesting to see the human emotion on such raw display in this chapter. She has tended to walk a line where her own emotions are portrayed as awed—even over terrible and unfair events, like the great Virginia floods. She also takes her personification of nature further in this chapter than previously, describing it as careless, cruel, and uniquely unkind.

This chapter leaves me with many questions; I wonder why she went to such great lengths to change the feeling of reverence Dillard had built up to this point—after this chapter, she largely returns to her prior attitude, describing instances of connection with nature, and deep insight into the scientific workings of the world. So what was the point? I wonder how she wanted to reader to feel. I was left feeling almost as though she did the topic a disservice. I’m one who is usually in favor of a level of anthropomorphizing and characterizing animals and nature, but this seemed extreme and lacking context to me. I’m curious whether, as the book resolves, this topic will reappear and it will begin to make more sense to me.