150 Years of the Atlantic May 2006

Nature & Environment

This is the fourth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, Wandering Home and the forthcoming Deep Economy.
The Force That Drives the Flower
November 1973
By Annie Dillard

In the summer of 1973, observing an especially fertile growing season outside her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the poet and essayist Annie Dillard waxed philosophical about the life cycle and the universal impulse to grow and reproduce. Her essay collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published the following year to widespread acclaim, earning her a Pulitzer Prize.

Now, in late June in the Blue Ridge, things are popping outside. Creatures extrude or vent eggs; larvae fatten, split their shells, and eat them; spores dissolve or explode; root hairs multiply, corn puffs on the stalk, grass yields seed, shoots erupt from the earth turgid and sheathed; wet muskrats, rabbits, and squirrels slide into the sunlight, mewling and blind; and everywhere watery cells divide and swell, swell and divide. I can like it and call it birth and regeneration, or I can play the devil’s advocate and call it rank fecundity—and say that it’s hell that’s a-poppin’ …

The driving force behind all this fecundity is a terrible pressure I also must consider, the pressure of birth and growth, the pressure that squeezes out the egg and bursts the pupa, that hungers and lusts and drives the creature relentlessly toward its own death. Fecundity, then, is what I have been thinking about, fecundity and the pressure of growth. Fecundity is an ugly word for an ugly subject. It is ugly, at least, in the eggy animal world. I don’t think it is for plants.

I never met a man who was shaken by a field of identical blades of grass. An acre of poppies and a forest of spruce boggle no one’s mind. Even ten square miles of wheat gladdens the hearts of most people, although it is really as unnatural and freakish as the Frankenstein monster; if man were to die, I read, wheat wouldn’t survive him more than three years.

No, in the plant world, and especially among the flowering plants, fecundity is not an assault on human values. Plants are not our competitors; they are our prey and our nesting materials …

Even when the plants get in the way of human “culture,” I don’t mind. When I read how many thousands of dollars a city like New York has to spend to keep underground water pipes free of ailanthus, ginko, and sycamore roots, I cannot help but give a little cheer. After all, water pipes are almost always an excellent source of water. In a town where resourcefulness and beating the system are highly prized, these primitive trees can fight city hall and win.

Volume 232, No. 5, pp. 69–77

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