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Dillard: frayed in a fallen world

October 22, 2016

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”[3] and that from παρά (para), “beside, by”[4] + σῖτος (sitos), “wheat”.[5] Coined in English in 1611, the word parasitism comes from the Greek παρά (para) + σιτισμός (sitismos) “feeding, fattening”.[6]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.

Dillard: the rough picture of fecundity

October 20, 2016

Some elements in the textured and very rough picture of fecundity that Dillard draws in chapter 10. As she says, “it’s rough out there”–and remember the lesson from fractal geometry, the texture of nature is rough, not smooth (as in the vision of classical science and Euclidean geometry). So, perhaps we can think of this entire chapter as a fractal image.

OED entry on fecund:

fecund, adj.

Etymology:  < French fecond, < Latin fēcundus fruitful. In the 16th cent. the spelling was refashioned after Latin.(Show Less)

a. Of animals, the earth, etc.: Capable of producing offspring or vegetable growth abundantly; prolific, fertile.In recent use distinguished from fertility n.   (see quot. 1904). Cf. fecundity n.   Otherwise somewhat arch.

c1420   Pallad. on Husb. i. 77   Make a dyche, and yf the moolde abounde And wol not in agayne, it is fecounde.
c1420   Pallad. on Husb. i. 985   That wol make all fecundare On every side.
1537   tr. Latimer’s 2nd Serm. bef. Convocation i. 42   He was so fecund a father, and had gotten so many children.
1676   Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 11 594   Animals fecond enough.
1678   R. Cudworth True Intellect. Syst. Universe i. iv. 489   The most Benign and Fecund Begetter of all things.
1682   N. Grew Anat. Plants i. iv. App. 33   Thorns, from the outer, and less fecund Part.
1721   R. Bradley Philos. Acct. Wks. Nature 30   The Nourishment and Growth of the Embrio Seed after its Germe is made fecund.
Energy spontaneously tends to flow only from being concentrated in one place
to becoming diffused or dispersed and spread out.
Dillard’s “poet” of the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” :

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

by Dylan Thomas
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics: in short, entropy. In more figurative terms (also evoked by Dillard), the arrow of time moves only in one direction, toward disorder,, loss and death. As Dillard tells us, it’s rough out there.
Environmental Ethics: Anthropocentrism vs Ecocentrism (Biocentrism):

Environmental philosophy

Anthropocentrism has been posited by some environmentalists, in such books as Confessions of an Eco-Warrior by Dave Foreman and Green Rage by Christopher Manes, as the underlying (if unstated) reason why humanity dominates and sees the need to “develop” most of the Earth. Anthropocentrism is believed by some to be the central problematic concept in environmental philosophy, where it is used to draw attention to a systematic bias in traditional Western attitudes to the non-human world.[3]Val Plumwood has argued[4][5] that anthropocentrism plays an analogous role in green theory to androcentrismin feminist theory and ethnocentrism in anti-racist theory. Plumwood calls human-centredness “anthrocentrism” to emphasise this parallel.

One of the first extended philosophical essays addressing environmental ethics, John Passmore‘s Man’s Responsibility for Nature[6] has been criticised by defenders of deep ecology because of its anthropocentrism, often claimed to be constitutive of traditional Western moral thought.[7] Defenders of anthropocentrist views point out that maintenance of a healthy, sustainable environment is necessary for human well-being as opposed for its own sake. The problem with a “shallow” viewpoint is not that it is human-centred but that according to William Grey: “What’s wrong with shallow views is not their concern about the well-being of humans, but that they do not really consider enough in what that well-being consists. According to this view, we need to develop an enriched, fortified anthropocentric notion of human interest to replace the dominant short-term, sectional and self-regarding conception.” [8]

It is important to take note that many devoted environmentalists encompass a somewhat anthropocentric-based philosophical view supporting the fact that they will argue in favor of saving the environment for the sake of human populations. “We should be concerned to promote a rich, diverse, and vibrant biosphere. Human flourishing may certainly be included as a legitimate part of such a flourishing.”[9]Biocentrism has been proposed as an antithesis of anthropocentrism.[10] It has also been proposed as a generalised form of anthropocentrism.[11]

A creationist description (a site called Answers in Genesis) for truths and myths about praying mantises. Which raises the question, since Dillard clearly invokes the discussion of evolution and refers repeatedly to the creator: is this an account of an evolutionist or creationist?

So. What’s the picture that emerges?

Ecology and Rhetoric: two views of the same

October 16, 2016

Starting with Thoreau, and moving through Burroughs and Leopold and Berry and into Dillard, we have been working our way around the idea that ecological thinking  and the rhetoric/poetics of writing are related. In other words, we have been reading not merely texts that represent the environment in writing, but rather, texts that are interested in the mutual understanding of writing (more broadly, the arts–in Greek: techne) and the environment. The ecological can’t be separated from the rhetorical. They are, as Thoreau puts it in his journal, “two views of the same.”

The second writing project challenges you to explore and enact this rhetorical perspective of environmental vision (and ecological vision of rhetoric).  Here is a way to think about that. There is a heuristic (in classical rhetoric: a model or structure to generate or organize thinking for an essay, argument, project, a device for invention) known as the particle/wave/field heuristic. I summarize it below by way of the rhetoric book Form and Surprise in Composition: Writing and Thinking Across the Curriculum by John Bean and John Ramage [they take the heuristic from the Young, Becker and Pike’s Rhetoric: Discovery and Change]. They suggest it as a method that helps develop an argument on a given topic by enabling the writer to switch perspective systematically. You can use this for any topic, though you will notice that it seems particularly apt for writing about topics related to environment and ecology. Since Dillard herself engages in the rhetoric of physics, specifically the analogy of particles and waves, this heuristic seems particularly appropriate.

Particle: First, take your topic X and view it as a static, unchanging entity (particle): note its distinguishing features, characteristics; consider how this entity differs from other similar things. For example: Thoreau on farming, particularly as he discusses it in “The Bean Field.” Or Berry on farming as discussed in “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” Think of this as specific ideas and statements made; specific quotations; deliberate reading of the material of the matter. We did something like this with the first project, reading deliberately like Thoreau.

Wave: Second, view the same topic as a dynamic changing process (wave): note how it acts and changes through time, grows, develops, decays. How does Thoreau’s view on farming change or develop elsewhere in Walden? Do we see the same vision in the end as at the beginning? What are some changes you observe? Think of this as places where you find echoes and contradictions and traces of the ideas or earlier statements. To use a favored word and image of Dillard’s, think about how the ideas loop

Field: Third, view the topic as a Field, as related to things around it and part of a system, network or ecological environment. What depends on X? What does X depend on? What would happen if X doesn’t exist? Who loves (hates) X? What communities (categories) does X belong to? [These questions turn us to consider counterargument–recall our discussion from project 1]. What is Dillard’s “field of vision,” as you see it? How does that field of vision compare to the vision of another writer, for example Leopold or Thoreau? What in Dillard depends on Thoreau?

This “field” view, I would suggest, has something crucial to do with Berry’s “pattern,” with Dillard’s complicated senses of seeing, with Leopold’s thinking like a mountain. My contention is that all good writing, whatever the topic, is ecological in this sense to the extent that a compelling and meaningful argument/essay/thesis (call it what you will) needs to move dynamically between focus on particulars and some sense and awareness of a larger field that informs the perspective, particularly when it can’t be always in view or comprehended.. A good argument  is aware of what it is not focusing on–and needs to incorporate that into its perspective. And to reverse the relation, therefore: an ecological vision is also rhetorical, knows its limits and proceeds with those limits always in mind.