the sea is a cup of death and the land is a stained altar stone
September 11, 2014 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
Annie Dillard ponders the disquieting thrall of the circle of life in her November 1973 essay for The Atlantic: The Force That Drives the Flower.


Annie Dillard previously.
posted by divined by radio (15 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Holy crow that's some writing.
posted by The Bellman at 11:53 AM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

The experimenters studied a single grass plant, winter rye. They let it grow in a greenhouse for four months; then they gingerly spirited away the soil—under microscopes, I imagine—and counted and measured all the roots and root hairs. In four months the plant had set forth 378 miles of roots—that's about three miles a day—in 14 million distinct roots. This is mighty impressive, but when they get down to the root hairs, I boggle completely. In those same four months the rye plant created 14 billion root hairs, and those little things placed end to end just about wouldn't quit. In a single cubic inch of soil, the length of the root hairs totaled 6000 miles.

I fucking love biology.
posted by Strass at 12:11 PM on September 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Before I owned an apartment with a yard that had to be cared for I had kind of a hippy-ish outlook on plants; they're so peaceful and zen! There's a spot back there there, about five square feet, which beyond a bit of weeding we don't really tend. It's less a garden than a battlefield where more species of plants than I can count (mostly various vines and grasses) are constantly fighting and dying for supremacy. Many botanical empires have risen and fallen in the 13-plus years we've lived there.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:27 PM on September 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

yeah, let me tell you about trying to plow a garden where I used winter rye as a cover crop.. Damn thing is a hell of a root-er, definitely keeps the soil from going anywhere, and definitely makes it hard to prep the soil for planting.
posted by k5.user at 12:45 PM on September 11, 2014

"Death--its desolation & horror--bleak spaces--sea-bottom--dead cities. but Life--the greater horror! Vast unheard-of reptiles & leviathans--hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle--rank slimy vegetation--evil instincts of primal man--Life is more horrible than death."

-- H.P. Lovecraft, Commonplace Book, entry 27
posted by JHarris at 12:50 PM on September 11, 2014 [12 favorites]

Werner Herzog’s take on the South American jungle (so very Herzog, and not unlike JHarris’ Lovecraft quote):
I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just — Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. [....]

Taking a close look at — at what’s around us there — there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle — we in comparison to that enormous articulation — we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.
Burden of Dreams, 1982
posted by letourneau at 12:58 PM on September 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Fecundity according to SMBC #1, #2
posted by lalochezia at 1:02 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Of course you have to remember Herzog pronounces jungle as 'yungle'. Really adds to the profundity when taken into account.
posted by todayandtomorrow at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I ♥ Annie Dillard.
posted by goethean at 1:28 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

This and the chapter on Intricacy give me the same sensation that I imagine other people achieve by reading religious texts.
posted by theodolite at 1:35 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Once after eating a lot of mushrooms I watched spider eggs hatching in a field, and my thoughts spiraled off in a similar direction. Above I saw raptors, below I saw fungus and beasts and bugs beyond counting and in between air thick with malevolent bacteria, spores, dangerous gases...

It was not a pleasant trip at that point and it took a very good bottle of wine, a warm campfire and some tunes to get things back on the right rails.

Until I read that essay. Put me right back in that field. Impressive.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:03 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

-- T.S. Elliot, The Waste Land (1922)
posted by mosk at 3:14 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you liked this, try it in the original German!
posted by thelonius at 4:28 PM on September 11, 2014

I only made the connection between floral prints and femininity like a week ago.
posted by unmake at 4:59 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Watching that frenzy of insects above the bush of white flowers,
bush I see everywhere on hill after hill, all I can think of
is how terrifying spring is, in its tireless, mindless replications.
Everywhere emergence: seed case, chrysalis, uterus, endless manufacturing.
And the wrapped stacks of Styrofoam cups in the grocery, lately
I can’t stand them, the shelves of canned beans and soups, freezers
of identical dinners; then the snowflake-diamond-snowflake of the rug
beneath my chair, rows of books turning their backs,
even my two feet, how they mirror each other oppresses me,
the way they fit so perfectly together, how I can nestle one big toe into the other
like little continents that have drifted; my God the unity of everything,
my hands and eyes, yours; doesn’t that frighten you sometimes, remembering
the pleasure of nakedness in fresh sheets, all the lovers there before you,
beside you, crowding you out? And the scouring griefs,
don’t look at them all or they’ll kill you, you can barely encompass your own;
I’m saying I know all about you, whoever you are, it’s spring
and it’s starting again, the longing that begins, and begins, and begins.

Kim Addonizio
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:32 PM on September 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

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