Essay: The Whole Creation is One Lunatic Fringe

If you love nature writings and admire writers who not only wield impressive facts but do it with great poetic sensibility,  I recommend Anne Dillard’s classic romp, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (first published in 1974) which won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m currently reading the book the third time, and still encounter epiphanies. Below is an excerpt (with minor edits) from a chapter entitled “Intricacy”, where Dillard’s imaginative powers of observation are on full display.

“Last year, I had a very unusual experience. I was awake with my eyes closed when I had a dream. It was a small dream about time. I was dead, I guess, in deep black space high up among many white stars. My own consciousness had been disclosed to me. I saw far below me a long, curved band of color. As I came closer, I saw that it stretched endlessly in either direction, and I understood that I was seeing all the time of the planet where I had lived. It looked like a woman’s scarf; the longer I studied any one spot, the more dots of color I saw. There was no end to the deepness and variety of the dots …

I remembered suddenly the color and texture of our life as we knew it … I recalled green fields with carrots growing, one by one, in slender rows. Men and women in bright vests and scarves came and pulled the carrots out of the soil and carried them in baskets to shaded kitchens, where they scrubbed them with yellow brushes under running water. I saw white-faced cattle lowing and wading in creeks, with dust on the whorled and curly white hair between their ears. I saw May apples in forests, erupting through leaf-strewn paths. Cells on the root hairs of sycamores split and divided, and apples grew spotted and striped in the fall. Mountains kept their cool caves, and squirrels raced home to their nests through sunlight and shade.

I remembered the ocean, and I seemed to be in the ocean myself, swimming over orange crabs that looked like coral, or off the deep Atlantic banks where whitefish school. Or again I saw the top of poplars, and the whole sky brushed with clouds in pallid streaks, under which wild ducks flew with outstretched necks, and called, one by one, and flew on.

All these things I saw. Scenes grew in depth and sunlit detail before my eyes, and were replaced by ever more scenes as I remembered the life of my time with increasing feeling.

At last I saw the earth as a globe in space, and I recalled the ocean’s shape and the form of continents, saying to myself with surprise as I looked at the planet, “Yes, that’s how it was then…”


We all ought to be able to conjure up sights like these at will, so that we can keep in mind the scope of texture’s motion in time … Then you can look in the mirror and watch all of the earth’s previous history unfolding as a movie screen…(like) transparent images moving through light, an infinite storm of beauty.

The beginning is swaddled in mists, blasted by random blinding flashes. Lava pours and cools; seas boil and flood. Clouds materialize and shift … The land shudders and splits, like pack ice rent by a widening lead. Mountains burst up, jutting, and dull and soften before your eyes, clothed in forests like felt. The ice rolls up, grinding green land under water forever; the ice rolls back. Forests erupt and disappear like fairy rings. The ice rolls up -mountains are moved into lakes, land rises wet from the sea like a surfacing whale – the ice rolls back.

Zero in on a well-watered shore and see smoke from fires drifting. Stone cities rise, spread, and crumble, like patches of alpine blossoms that flourish for a day an inch above the permafrost… New cities emerge and spread in lobes like lichen on rock. The great human figures of history … are a wavering blur whose split second in the light was too brief an exposure to yield any image but the hunched, shadowless figures of ghosts … Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.”

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