In my first writing project, I argued that Thoreau’s support for a plant-based diet represented an ethical development over time—both for him, personally, and for humanity as a whole. “Leaving off eating animals” is a step towards simplicity and moral purity for the individual, and represents the moral evolution of civilization. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, also experiences an evolution of her thought and morals, as she confronts some of the harsher realities of the world. In the first half of the book, she embraces a world designed intentionally by evolution and a Creator, relishing in its “jaggedness.” But in the chapter “Fecundity,” she begins to see a natural world that brings forth life only to mass-produce death as amoral. And if nature is amoral, then how can she reconcile engaging with it so closely and maintaining her own human morality?
At first, Dillard almost finds beauty (and sometimes even humor) in death. But after the chapter “Flood,” she has a nightmare and wakes with a whole new mindset. She writes, “Any three-year-old can see how unsatisfactory and clumsy is this whole business of reproducing and dying by the billions” (179). Considering the fact that it seems she only just had this realization, she is insulting herself in this moment. Even a young child can see the horror that she turned a blind eye to. Dillard now challenges herself to work through the implications of this knowledge, writing, “Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” This line feels very intentional in its wording. On a surface level, it seems like her concern is that if her “mother” is a monster then perhaps she is, too. But I think it can also speak to the moment when one realizes that their parents are deeply flawed. For Dillard, this realization is difficult, since she has viewed Tinker Creek and nature as a sacred sanctuary, superior to the human world. In terms of her environmental ethic, this seems to be the point in which she really digs into whether or not she should consider herself a part of nature or apart from nature. Is the natural world truly an escape from the troubles of the human world, or is it really just a whole set of even worse horrors?
Ultimately, Dillard determines that while this mass death is far from beautiful, she should not impose her own human morals on the other inhabitants of the world. It is unreasonable to believe that only humans have it right, and “the whole universe is wrong” (179). So she continues to submerge herself in the natural world, feeling that the price for life and freedom is death. She writes, “The world has signed a pact with the devil…if you want to live, you have to die” (183). This demonstrates her attempts to reconcile a creator who builds intricate creatures freely with a world full of darkness and death. Having reached these conclusions, she is unable to return to seeing the world as intentionally beautiful—nature is jagged (sometimes in a beautiful way) because it arises from entropy.