Re-reading my favorite book up until my birthday
...It is chomp or fast. Earlier this evening I brought in a handful of the gnawed mock-orange hedge and cherry tree leaves; they are uncurling now, limp and bluish, on the top of this desk. They didn’t escape, but their time was almost up anyway. Already outside a corky ring of tissue is thickening around the base of each leaf stem, strangling each leaf one by one. The summer is old. A gritty, colorless dust cakes the melons and squashes, and worms fatten within on the bright, sweet flesh. The world is festering with suppurating sores. Where is the good, whole fruit? The world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace nor help for pain.” I’ve been there, seen it, done it, I suddenly think, and the world is old, a hungry old man fatigued and broken past mending. Have I walked too much, aged beyond my years? I see the copperhead shining new on a rock altar over a fetid pool where a forest should grow. I see the knob-footed killdeer, the tattered butterflies and birds, the snapping turtle festooned with black leeches. There are the flies that make a wound, the flies that find a wound, and a hungry world that won’t wait till I’m decently dead.
“In nature,” wrote Huston Smith, “ the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be.” I learn this lesson in a new way every day. It must be, I think tonight, that in a certain sense only the newborn in this world are whole, that as adults we are expected to be, and necessarily, somewhat nibbled. It’s par for the course… Is our birthright and heritage to be, like Jacob’s cattle on which the life of a nation was founded, “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” not with the spangling marks of a grace like beauty rained down from eternity, but with the blotched assaults and quarryings of time?...
But the sight of the leeched turtle and the frayed flighted things means something else. I think of the green insect shaking the web from its wings, and of the whale-scarred crab-eater seals. They demand a certain respect. The only way I can reasonably talk about all this is to address you directly and frankly as a fellow survivor. Here we so incontrovertibly are. Sub specie aeternitatis this may all look different, from inside the blackened gut beyond the narrow craw, but now, although we hear the buzz in our ears and the crashing of the jaws at our heels, we can look around as those who are nibbled but unbroken, from the shimmering vantage of the living. Here may not be the cleanest, newest place, but that clean timeless place that vaults on either side of this one is no place at all. “Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.” There are no more chilling, invigorating words than these of Christ’s, “Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.”
That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it… knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights.
I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down. Simone Weil says it simply, “Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.”
- Annie Dillard (excerpts from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)