I have always been interested in the form of the lyric essay, and reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek certainly augmented that fascination. The way she flickers between subjects, not in the same extremes as Thoreau does in Walden, but with a confidence that carries the reader along without hesitation, is an impressive technique that I have attempted to emulate in my essay. The idea of critically evaluating one’s relationship with the local space has been touched upon by many of the essayists we have read this semester, in particular Thoreau and Dillard. Since the beginning of the class, I have been fixated on John Burroughs’s essay “The Art of Seeing Things,” which I think depicts so beautifully the necessity of a careful eye in observations of nature. My goal was to wrestle with that eye, to better understand how my self influences the things I see and the way I see them.
My essay attempts to analyze, in a lyrical way, the way I looked upon a gruesome series of deaths piled up on the shore of Shipyard Landing. I wanted to place myself firmly in the moment before allowing myself to wander away, lingering on theorists and further readings that changed the way I thought about nature, and finally returning back to the space with a new understanding of the original scene. Ultimately, my goal in this essay is to be transformative, to take a moment in time that is frozen in my memory and to begin to thaw it, pulling it apart until I have seen it from every angle and can better understand my mindset in the moment and how I can move forward from it. My lyric style of writing is generally inspired by Dillard and Lia Purpura, both of whom can depict mundane and even gruesome images with a gentle touch and a beautiful gesture. If anything, I hope this essay is emblematic of my own learning through this class as I better developed my relationship with literature of the natural world.
The Bodies of Shipyard Landing
First, I should set the scene. It would be irresponsible for me to begin this without starting at the place to which I always return. There are many places I go to think—some are essays, some are poems, some are images—but I think the most pertinent as of right now is the physical place. The location is Shipyard Landing—if you drive from Chestertown out on 20, it’s a left onto Shipyard Lane just before you enter Rock Hall. I turned there on a whim while driving to clear my mind, and drove through a chute lined with cornstalks higher than my head. At the end of the road, there is a large building, an abandoned house, and a parking lot for a boat ramp. The lot is made for trailers and people who plan to be there for a while—there’s a fully stocked port-a-potty, relatively clean, just next to the sign explaining the site’s historical significance. I have become rather fascinated with this place, partially for its seclusion, partially for the view, and certainly in part due to the fact that it is almost always inhabited by people, fishermen mostly, enough that I never feel comfortable just stopping to see the place from outside my car. Instead, I loop around in the lot, watching the water and shoreline with the disguise of a confused traveler trying to find a place to turn around.
As luck would have it, I have, on one occasion, found the space entirely empty. I was just beginning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I was looking for a pleasant place to read. I parked in the lot and stepped out to find an ideal spot to sit. The tide was extremely low and the wind was rapid and violent. I stood at the northernmost corner of the dock, furthest from the boat ramp, and stared out at the shore before me. Fallen branches, broken logs, and rocky textures littered the shoreline. And yet, there were no rocks, was no shore, was only the body of a crab layered over other bodies, crumbled and etched with sea-salt, crawling over each other but for their stillness. A crab graveyard is not technically ominous—I suppose it’s just a sign of the currents and their directions, the pull of a tide from the river floor to the shoreline.
Even so, I pulled myself away from the bodies. The dock is a few feet up from the ground, and the slope from the lot to the shore is mediated by tall grasses that knot themselves green-tan around each other. Part of me desperately wanted to step down, across the bodies, to sit on the log and pull my feet up to my chest and stare out from the center to see the graveyard all around me. But the other part—probably the rational one—noticed my dress-shoes, the distance between dock and shore that would be hard to leap down and nearly impossible to climb up, the potential crunch of a still-living crab dragging himself from under his brothers. And so I moved away. I stepped out toward the water’s murk where the crab bodies disappeared. I could see small fish darting, tapping shades of plants and swirling themselves around a mangled trash bag. And yet, there was no trash bag, was no bag at all, was only a bloated deer chest attached to the curled-back body of a young buck, antlers and all, stomach torn open with innards protruding like pale fish gently skimming the surface of the river. A look closer—the guts were, in fact, guts, and below and around the body were more bodies, actual white fish, also torn open, also spilling their insides up with bloating, also surrounded by small fish nibbling at their edges. This was a graveyard, yes, but for more than only crabs. And I was struck still looking at the carnage.
Moments of shock always come with surprising clarity—here I noticed that there was no rot-smell, nothing stronger than the river’s inherent stink. At the time, I didn’t pay attention to this. I was busy looking around for a large stick, something to poke the belly to bursting and see if it was ripe. The problem of a clearing is a general lack of wood—the only long things I could find were the same reeds that barred me from the water’s edge. I thought again about jumping down—maybe I could head home and grab my work boots, clamber my way to the crabs and dig between them, see where the dead and the soil met. And then, like a deer, I heard a snap and froze. A car was making its way down to the lot and I was no longer the only human there. I picked up my book, which I had left on the dock before my investigation, and tossed myself into my car. By the time the other vehicle came into sight, I was moving, pulling away from the lot and beginning toward the cornfield. I didn’t come back that day.
I did, however, return frequently to that one spot. Still do. I’ve never seen the tide so low, though I’ve researched it and tried. In all honesty, I think the place defies planning—I prefer to go and be disappointed than wait until I can guarantee a low tide. It has been a few months since I saw the deer, the crabs, the fish, but I still return to try to find them, or other bodies, or something to remind me that what I saw wasn’t a dream. Because what I saw seemed so dreamlike, so bizarre. It would have been easy to look at the shoreline and just see a rocky beach and a discarded bag, a place where boats launch themselves out into the river, a place made for people, by people. But that divide between humans and nature is misleading—humans are inherently natural, are organic like the bodies on the shore, and to separate them so distinctly is an oversimplification of something so much more complex.
When I think about Shipyard Landing, it does not exist without my body present in the space. I suppose this makes me anthropocentric in my thinking. Lawrence Buell, in The Future of Environmental Criticism, describes anthropocentrism as, “the assumption or view that the interests of humans are of higher priority than those of nonhumans” (Buell, 134), basically a view that humans are at the center of life. When I look at nature, the contexts in which I live are the first things I associate with what I see. It is natural for me to consider my self before others, both as a defense mechanism and as a lens for the rest of the world. The definition of anthropocentrism is, I think, arrogant. If we assume that every other creature sees the world from the context of their selves, then why not allow ourselves the same pleasures? Why hold humans to a different standard than other forms of organic life? Why continue to separate our humanness from nature?
It is far too easy to consider ourselves distinct from nature, to erase our bodies from a world we see as inherently separate. But it’s not so easy for nature to do the same to us. One afternoon, while I was reading beside the library on campus, I heard a buzzing rustle and saw first a cicada, followed by a wasp. The gripped each other, dancing, until the wasp thrust into the larger bug and the cicada stopped his struggle. The wasp, with a miraculous strength, carried her prey towards my chair and began to climb the leg. I stood, intending to walk to the other side of the table to see her better, but by then she had clambered her way to the top and we met there, just inches from each other. She, in some fear or self-defense, dropped the cicada to the ground before flying directly at me, as if preparing to fight for her catch. But, as quickly as she became aggressive, the wasp retreated and flew into the trees and out of my sight. It struck me then—if this wasp could see me as a competitor, then how separate from nature can I be? I was her equal until she surrendered her catch to me, acknowledging my dominance. I was something that could be competition for this insect and her goals.
If I am part of nature as a result of being organic, then my anthropocentrism is, in its own way, also ecocentric. I find it dangerous to erase the human from the natural world. After all, people damage the environment with nearly every move, from driving to littering, both consciously and unconsciously chipping away at an ecosystem surviving in the context of an arrogant, violent species. When I see the human in the landscape, I choose to point out where we attach like lesions to the world’s skin. I will not erase myself from the space I inhabit, because I cannot physically remove the remnants of myself from the world. I think looking at nature and pointing out man’s contributions is a form of reclamation, a way of declaring, look, I have been here, I have left some part of me behind, I have existed.
If my human eye is attuned to anything, I think it must be signs of humanity. Why else would I immediately think of trash in the place of a body while looking into the waters of Shipyard Landing? As much as I love to find the remnants of humanity among nature, I have to acknowledge how that allows me to ignore the difficulties of nature. It was so easy for me to think about the manufactured, to choose the man-made thing instead of the hard truth of a natural world. Death is not manufactured, is not man-made. Death is grotesque. When I think about that word, grotesque, I do not think of a product or an object. Grotesqueness, to me, implies some sort of life, an organic being that lives and grows and dies and is eaten. Someday I, too, will be eaten—I will be that deer, or crab body, or torn open fish in a riverbed, glassy-eyed and facing upwards as if a glimpse at the sky was the last thing I saw in life. Someday, in death, I will also lose my humanity. I will be a body, nothing more.
This grotesqueness is necessary. Annie Dillard celebrates this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time” (Dillard, 148). To Dillard, the grotesque comes from the same place as the beautiful. And truly, how can one know beauty without knowing also ugliness? Without something to act as a catalyst for comparison, everything is smooth, textureless, without the nuances that come with placing two things side by side and saying, here, look at the differences. But, as Dillard notes, even as the beautiful and the grotesque are distinct and separate creatures, they are cut from the same cloth, arrive to us from the same source. To celebrate the grotesque, we must be willing to see it as beautiful first.
To Dillard, some of the most grotesque figures she observes are insects. Her fascination is what draws her to them, but even so she approaches their bodies with disappointing simplicity. It is as if she sees the bizarre in the bugs, but cannot look further into them than that. I think back to Burroughs and “The Art of Seeing,” an essay that has greatly influenced my thoughts since I first arrived at Shipyard Landing. Burroughs argues in the essay that, in order to see something, one must come at it with both knowledge and love, and if one could only embody one trait, one would do best to love what they see. To Burroughs, “love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, it steadies the hand, it arms against the wet and the cold” (Burroughs, 3). When Dillard looks at the unconventional, whether insects or a bizarre landscape, she is fascinated by the contrast between her subject and the generally accepted concept of nature’s beauty. But in doing this, Dillard erases the innate nature of the thing she observes for the sake of its grotesqueness, which simplifies and objectifies her subjects. From this, I gather that Dillard does not love the grotesque, but rather the texture it provides. This is where Dillard and I differ—I love the strange for what it is, not for its aesthetic value.
I think I can best exemplify this love through one specific subject: insects and arachnids. This fixation I have is both scientific and poetic. I have taken biology classes entirely for the small chapters on entomology, and I traveled to Nicaragua with a biology class to research spiders in the rainforest. The knowledge I have about insects is no match for my poetic interests in them—I have written numerous poems with bugs as a subject matter, using them as lenses through which I see other aspects of life. Bugs are beautifully complicated; there are countless different species and subspecies of insects and arachnids, and an even more massive presence of bugs in the world than we can imagine. While the vast numbers of bugs in the world distress Dillard, that same fact exhilarates me.
I wonder, then, if my observations at Shipyard Landing indicate some unknown love for humans that I have not addressed. Burroughs suggests that people do not see things because they do not really wish to see them, like an individual who does not see any birds even though they are abundantly present. If I did not love the thought of human remnants in an otherwise pristine natural setting, then why did I see them before seeing the gruesome? Something about human beings fascinates me—we are arrogant in thinking we are above other organic beings, but we still attempt to perform kindness for other people and creatures with which we interact. We are cautious about the way we present ourselves in the world, but dispose of items with wild abandon and no acknowledgement of their impact on our ecosystem. While Dillard seeks the textures in nature to linger on, I think I am more fixated on the textures inherent in humanity, the ways we contradict ourselves but, ultimately, are altruistic. When I looked over the shore, I wanted to see where our local human consciousness failed us by allowing litter to collect in a protected natural space, but instead I found an entirely natural occurrence in a life cycle—a multitude of deaths scattered the ground even as dozens of smaller creatures nibbled away at their bodies, nourishing their growth and beginning their own lives.
For the sake of this project, I returned to Shipyard Landing yesterday to see if I could finally see the shore again, if somehow the tide would lower herself for me one more time. As luck would have it, the shore was visible—not as low as the day that started this whole thing, but low enough that I could see the bottom of the river. Memory is a murky thing—I did not remember how clear the water is near the shore, how easy it is to see all the way to the rocks lining the bed. I had planned to look at the shoreline first before seeking the deer, as if to relive my movements on that first day, but I was distracted by a white cage, ragged pale flesh waving from bone, the ribcage and spine of the deer I remembered so clearly as a plastic bag. Looking upon the body, there was no way I could consider it anything other than a corpse, bones blanched by the sun and skin torn away by waves and fish alike. I pulled my eyes away to look at the shore, but the water had washed away the piles of crabs I remembered, leaving patches of soil peeking around opened oysters and the occasional dismembered claw. It is strange to be disappointed by a lack of carnage, but in many ways I expected more from the place, after all it had made me think about.
And really, that’s the power of nature. There is so much to the world, so much to see, so many textures to feel and rub against, but there is no promise to provide any of this consistently. To expect something from nature is to be disappointed. Nature owes no one anything—we are lucky to get what we can from her, and the responsibility to understand it falls upon us. When I look at nature, I have to interpret it for myself, and I do, gladly, and I search specifically for the things that are hidden, the small deaths and strange mandibles of an unknown world. I am a player in the world’s game, and I happily take my place among the creatures, dead and alive, organic and non-organic, littering the ground around me. If I can be a body in nature, then I can be a part of nature, some aspect of her history, and some fiber of me will remain embedded in the spaces I have inhabited just as a result of my presence. If I can be a body amongst other bodies, be the eyes that recognize the corpses that build their own burial mounds, then I myself become a body with them, become a part of their microcosm. And nature has allowed me to be a body amongst other bodies at Shipyard Landing, and that is more than I could ever ask of her.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. Print.
Burroughs, John. The Art of Seeing Things: Essays. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2001, pp 3-15. Print.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HarperPerennial, 2007. Print.