The Taser's Edge


A metaphor for the limitless and wasteful generativity of nature from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ch. 10, “Fecundity”:

Say you are the manager of the Southern Railroad.  You figure that you need three engines for a stretch of track between Lynchburg and Danville.  It’s a mighty steep grade.  So at fantastic effort and expense you have your shops make nine thousand engines.  Each engine must be fashioned just so, every rivet and bolt secure, every wire twisted and wrapped, every needle on every indicator sensitive and accurate.

You send all nine thousand of them out on the runs.  Although there are engineers at the throttles, no one is manning the switches.  The engines crash, collide, derail, jump, jam, burn….At the end of the massacre you have three engines, which is what the run would support in the first place.  There are few enough of them that they can stay out of each others’ paths.

You go to your board of directors and show them what you’ve done.  And what are they going to say?  You know what they’re going to say: It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Is it a better way to run a universe?

Gratitude, Enjoyment, and Annie Dillard

One particularly pernicious permutation of my failing to enjoy life enough in general is the failure to enjoy nature.  When I think of nature, I think of heat, sweat, bugs and stickiness (or cold and wind in times and places beyond mid-July in North Carolina).  Not too much on the positive end of things.  Not much at all.

But, I am reading Annie Dillard’s justly famous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I’m trying to open my eyes.  A couple excerpts:

It’s still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans.  I’ve been thinking about seeing.  There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But–and this is the point–who gets excited by a mere penny?…It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.  What you see is what you get. (p. 17)


You are God.  You want to make a forest, something to hold the soil, lock up solar energy, and give off oxygen.  Wouldn’t it be simpler just to rough in a slab of chemicals, a green acre of goo? (p. 131)

For the record, I do pick up pennies when I find them.  Because it’s fun.  And the wonder-based view of nature and the creativity of God reminds me of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, although Dillard does a better job than many wonder-of-nature-lovers at looking the horror of nature full-in-the-face as well.