What do you make of Dillard’s interest in parasites and parasitism? How and why do we get this fairly scientific vision of her neighborhood wrapped up with what is clearly a more spiritual vision, marked by the various Biblical references she makes? For example, the very title of chapter 13, The Horns of the Altar, a reference to sacrificial practice of the ancient Hebrews.
Here is some etymology that might lend us a hand at least regarding parasites:
First used in English 1539, the word parasite comes from the Medieval Frenchparasite, from the Latinparasitus, the latinisation of the Greekπαράσιτος (parasitos), “one who eats at the table of another” and that from παρά (para), “beside, by” + σῖτος (sitos), “wheat”. Coined in English in 1611, the word parasitism comes from the Greek παρά (para) + σιτισμός (sitismos) “feeding, fattening”.
A reminder of the role that snakes play in Genesis (to say nothing of apples).
Wikipedia entry on the Ichneumon wasp, a particular focal point for Dillard–and as it happens, an example of parasitism that particularly troubled Darwin:
The grisliness and apparent cruelty (at least, from a human perspective) of Ichneumonidae larval cannibalism troubled philosophers, naturalists, and theologians in the 19th century, who found the practice inconsistent with the notion of a world created by a loving and benevolent God. Charles Darwin found the example of the Ichneumonidae so troubling that it contributed to his increasing doubts about the nature and existence of a Creator. In an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:
I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
In case you are wondering, the wave breast/heave shoulder that Dillard gets to in the last chapter derives from the Hebrew scripture, specifically Leviticus (glossed here).
I am compelled by the line that follows her rather playful (and humorous–now look what you made me do) invocation of religion.
We are people; we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!
Dillard seems to have a different sacrifice in mind–or a different attitude to the sense of sacrifice that she identifies with nature. Different, at least, than the interpretation of the same passage that I found on a religious blog. Where the sacrificial offering reflects man’s dominion. In any case, no hint of the anger at God that Dillard shows.
What do we make of Dillard’s spirituality, her invocation (as here) of specific religious perspectives? Does her spiritualism fit with her naturalism? Are environmental perspectives and religious perspectives compatible?
I might suggest this late line, speak up for the creation, almost as the thesis and argument of the book. Finally, we get it. But it is not the creation, it seems, of any one province: not exclusively the Hebrew Bible’s God, not Christian creationism, not Romanticism’s sublime nature, not science’s perfectly economical machine. It’s the creation of the giant water bug (notice how it comes back, along with the cat) eating the world. It’s Emerson; but the emphasis is not on transcendence (remember his transparent eyeball from 1836 Nature) but the totality of vision. “All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free.” We have got to take (eat) it all, for better and for worse.
If we go back to “Fecundity,” does this vision answer the questions she raises, provide an explanation? Or leave us, in the end, with a picture but not an explanation? Is her vision, her project, then ecological (wanting to account for evolution)? ethical and moral (wanting to account for a human purpose missing in evolution)? political (speaking up for the creation)? spiritual (speaking up to the creator)? creative (speaking as a creator)? Or all of these? None of these?
I am left thinking my way back to Thoreau: trying to make, as he puts it in “Spring,” a fathomable account of unfathomable nature.
As a follow-up to our discussion of Dillard’s style of writing, I would argue that many of the characteristics (and especially the poetic-scientific hybrids we keep observing, perhaps inherited from Thoreau) can be categorized under the heading fractal. This is a mathematical concept that emerges, in fact, within a year or two of Pilgrim (mid-1970s). In fact, the mathematician (Mandelbrot) who coined the term ‘fractal’ recently died–his obit in the NYTimes provides a useful summary of what fractal means–a vision of a world that is not smooth–and intricate in its roughness; the classic examples are two of great interest to Dillard’s vision–a coastline and the shape of a leaf. Dillard’s version of the fractal: the frayed and fringed texture of the world that she focuses on in “Intricacy.”
The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork–for it doesn’t, particuclarly, not even inside the goldfish bowl–but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle.
I see her writing as such a fringed tangle, replicating a kind of texture that she finds in the movement between her thinking and her observing, like the movement between creek-water and creek-bank. Fractal texture might be a word for this. Here is the definition of fractal from the OED–see if you hear anything of interest. The entire book as a fractal? One of the descriptions I have heard to describe a fractal helps me make sense of Dillard’s writing: the idea is that when you continually magnify an image of a border (coastline, or say the edge of a cloud), each successive larger/closer image will have a pattern something like the first one. So, reiteration without exact repetition; a loop that spirals; intricacy built upon a simplicity that is beautiful and unfathomable.
[a. F. fractal (B. B. Mandelbrot 1975, in Les Objets Fractals), f. L. fract-us, pa. pple. of frangre to break: see -AL1.]
A mathematically conceived curve such that any small part of it, enlarged, has the same statistical character as the original. Freq.attrib. or as adj.1975Sci. Amer. Nov. 144/3 It seems that mountain relief, islands, lakes, the holes in Appenzeller and Ementhaler cheeses, the craters of the moon, the distribution of stars close to us in the galaxy and a good deal more can be described by the use of generalized Brownian motions and the idea of the fractal dimension. 1977 B. B. MANDELBROT Fractals i. 1/2 Many important spatial patterns of Nature are either irregular or fragmented to such an extreme degree that..classical geometry..is hardly of any help in describing their form… I hope to show that it is possible in many cases to remedy this absence of geometric representation by using a family of shapes I propose to call fractalsor fractal sets. 1977Sci. News 20 Aug. 123 Sets and curves with the discordant dimensional behavior of fractals were introduced at the end of the 19th century by Georg Cantor and Karl Weierstrass.1978 [see snowflake curve s.v. SNOWFLAKE 7]. 1984Nature 4 Oct. 419/2 Parts of such patterns, when magnified, are indistinguishable from the whole. The patterns are characterized by a fractal dimension; the value log2 3 1·59 is the most common. 1985Ibid. 21 Feb. 671 Mandelbrot has argued that a wide range of natural objects and phenomena are fractals; examples of fractal trees include actual trees, plants such as a cauliflower, river systems and the cardiovascular system.
My attitude has been totally different. I always saw a close kinship between the needs of “pure” mathematics and a certain hero of Greek mythology, Antaeus. The son of Earth, he had to touch the ground every so often in order to reestablish contact with his Mother; otherwise his strength waned. To strangle him, Hercules simply held him off the ground. Back to mathematics. Separation from any down-to-earth input could safely be complete for long periods — but not forever. In particular, the mathematical study of Brownian motion deserved a fresh contact with reality.
What is a Fractal?
The Border Between Chaos and Order
A fractal is defined by its properties. Two of the most important properties of all fractals are :-
2) fractional dimension
Self-similarity means that one part of the fractal is very similar to other parts of the same fractal. This can be seen in most fractal art . . . for example the fractal image above is a spiral made of smaller similar spirals, and each of those smaller spirals is itself made of similar smaller spirals, and so on, ad infinitum.
Start with a straight line . . . that has one dimension. Then make the line increasingly twisted in more and more complex ways . . . if the line was infinitely twisted it could fill an area and would thus be two-dimensional. Because of the principle of self-similarity (infinite complexity), a fractal line is part-way between one and two dimensions, so it is a fractal line that is on the way towards filling a space, because the wiggles on the line themselves have smaller wiggles, and those wiggles in turn have smaller wiggles and so on.
This might seem like mathematical abstraction but it has very practical results. For example, take the coastline of an island . . . look at it from far away and lay a piece of string along the coastline, and you will arrive at a length for that coastline. Then zoom in and you will see that where the coastline appeared to be a simple shape from far away, the line along the coast has a lot more detailed wiggles the closer you get. You could continue this increasing detail down to grains of sand along the coastline, and if you lay the piece of string around all the details, you get a LONGER measurement than you did from the initial far view!
“Ecological complexity refers to the complex interplay between all living systems and their environment, and emergent properties from such an intricate interplay. The concept of ecological complexity stresses the richness of ecological systems and their capacity for adaptation and self-organization. The complex, nonlinear interactions (behavioral, biological, chemical, ecological, environmental, physical, social, cultural) that affect, sustain, or are influenced by all living systems, including humans. It deals with questions at the interfaces of traditional disciplines and its goal is to enable us to explain and ultimately predict the outcome of such interactions. Ecological complexity can also be thought of as biocomplexity in the environment” (Li, 2004, editorial in Ecological Complexity).