“We ought to have praying mantises in our churches,” Annie Dillard’s narrator argues in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after detailing its ruthless feeding habits for ten pages. Through the pedantic observations of this modern-day existentialist, she dissects the gruesome realities of nature that we often place a veil over, the sorts of things that could leave even the most devout readers questioning the Creator.
“Seems like we’re just set down here,” a woman says in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “and don’t nobody know why.”
I think God wants us to look broad-faced at nature like this creekside pilgrim, to get in the dirt and wrestle with him like Jacob did. I’ve heard that nature is supposed to help us contemplate God, but I always pictured fields of lilies and gentle lambs, not the unkempt beastly reality that Dillard describes. And yet, it turns out, that helped me contemplate God too.
As increasingly urban people, we’ve created a healthy distance from nature’s offenses. Dillard seems to imply that the wonders of nature are as much in the merciless survival of beasts ravaging each other as the moments of awe at a sunset. As much in the bites of leeches as the coos of doves. Our disengagement from nature has only safeguarded us from the uncomfortable mystery of suffering we are meant to trial with.
In the early weeks of spring I encountered nature the most I could living in landlocked LA: I finished Dillard’s novel and the second season of Planet Earth. I watched newly hatched goslings crash hundreds of feet onto coastal rocks in front of their parents eyes only to be snatched up as a fox’s meal. I read how Dillard’s “pilgrim” studied as the life of a bullfrog was drained out by a water bug feeding underneath. I watched with horror as packs of lionesses slowly tore apart the flesh of an aging wildebeest. I saw an ugly world preying, gnashing, festering; a world of beasts constantly looking for their next meal. It was repulsing. Almost unholy. And yet, it was God’s.
I began to see how nature was full of revolting moments intermingled with unthinkable splendor. These came together. To choose to grapple with nature is to choose to reckon with all of it. When we try to understand it, “we wake to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence,” Dillard’s narrator reflects.
Contemplating nature provokes such questions as, “What kind of creator would create that?” when looking at the hagfish or shoebill. What kind of creator would allow that to happen to male honeybees? Why did he have to make creation like this? How can the same God of profligate wonder be the God of such barbarity? One can quickly see how nature seems designed to reflect on the Passion.
“Cruelty is a mystery, and a waste of pain,” reflects Dillard’s narrator, “But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.”
Nature is a mystery without resolution. We don’t get answers why it has to be this way and not another. While the crucifixion has met the resurrection, the mystery remains of why it had to happen that way, why our sins needed reparation. Like the madness of nature, which God no doubt intended for us to poke at, to witness in horror, to revel in its beauty, to seek to understand, we get only what is as an answer to contemplate. We get the canary on the skull.
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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