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The Mangrove and the Meaning of Life: Annie Dillard on What Earth’s Most Otherworldly Trees Teach Us About Being Human

The Mangrove and the Meaning of Life: Annie Dillard on What Earth’s Most Otherworldly Trees Teach Us About Being Human

“We, this people, on this small and drifting planet,” Maya Angelou wrote in her cosmic clarion call to humanity, “Whose hands can strike with such abandon / That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living / Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness.” How is it that, adrift amid a vast and unfeeling universe, we live with our sundering contradictions and still manage to constellate our lives with meaning, with beauty, with the transcendent possibility of belonging with each other and of homecoming to ourselves?

Thirteen years before Angelou composed her gift of a poem, Annie Dillard — another writer of tremendous humanist insight at the intersection of the philosophical and the poetic — addressed these questions in a beautiful short essay titled “Sojourner” from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (public library) — the 1982 essay collection that gave us Dillard’s stunning account of a total solar eclipse.

Annie Dillard receiving the National Humanities Medal, September 10, 2015. (Photograph: Andrew Harnik.)

A century after Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, Dillard turns to one particular, unusual tree as a teacher of life:

If survival is an art, then mangroves are artists of the beautiful: not only that they exist at all — smooth-barked, glossy-leaved, thickets of lapped mystery — but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water.

She marvels at the improbable existence of these arboreal wonders — how hurricanes rip them from the shore and carry them into the ocean; how they defy the deadliness of salinity by exuding salt from their leaves, which even taste salty when licked; how they make their own soil in open water by trapping debris in their aerial roots, attracting bacteria and pooling fresh rainwater; how the mangrove plants its seeds onto this growing self-generated island, until it becomes a floating forest. A century and a half after the pioneering polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt awakened humanity to the cosmos of connections by asserting that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” Dillard writes:

A society grows, interlocked in a tangle of dependencies.


The mangrove island wanders on, afloat and adrift. It walks teetering and wanton before the wind. Its fate and direction are random. It may bob across an ocean and catch on another mainland’s shores. It may starve or dry while it is still a sapling. It may topple in a storm, or pitchpole. By the rarest of chances, it may stave into another mangrove island in a crash of clacking roots, and mesh. What it is most likely to do is drift anywhere in the alien ocean, feeding on death and growing, netting a makeshift soil as it goes, shrimp in its toes and terns in its hair.

Red mangrove. Illustration by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié

Like Emily Dickinson, who drew from the rest of the natural world mighty metaphors for the central problems of human existence, Dillard draws from the drifting mangrove islands a metaphor for our civilizational and existential predicament:

I alternate between thinking of the planet as home — dear and familiar stone hearth and garden — and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word “sojourner” occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people’s sense of vagrancy, a praying people’s knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people’s intuition of sharp loss: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.”

Echoing Denise Levertov’s lament about our strange habitual resistance to acknowledging our belonging to the universe, Dillard adds:

We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy — or a broad lampoon — on a thrust rock stage. It doesn’t seem to be here that we belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge. It is strange here, not quite warm enough, or too warm, too leafy, or inedible, or windy, or dead. It is not, frankly, the sort of home for people one would have thought of — although I lack the fancy to imagine another.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings

Shortly after the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska contemplated how our cosmic solitude can make us better stewards of our humanity, Dillard writes:

The planet itself is a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung across nowhere. The few objects in the universe scatter. The coherence of matter dwindles and crumbles toward stillness. I have read, and repeated, that our solar system as a whole is careering through space toward a point east of Hercules. Now I wonder: what could that possibly mean, east of Hercules? Isn’t space curved? When we get “there,” how will our course change, and why? Will we slide down the universe’s inside arc like mud slung at a wall? Or what sort of welcoming shore is this east of Hercules? Surely we don’t anchor there, and disembark, and sweep into dinner with our host. Does someone cry, “Last stop, last stop”? At any rate, east of Hercules, like east of Eden, isn’t a place to call home. It is a course without direction; it is “out.” And we are cast.

These are enervating thoughts, the thoughts of despair. They crowd back, unbidden, when human life as it unrolls goes ill, when we lose control of our lives or the illusion of control, and it seems that we are not moving toward any end but merely blown. Our life seems cursed to be a wiggle merely, and a wandering without end…

Art by Lia Halloran from Your Body is a Space That Sees, a cyanotype celebration of women in astronomy

And yet these selfsame facts of the physical universe contain their own antidote to this hollowing sense of alienation — an antidote Virginia Woolf articulated exquisitely in recounting her existential epiphany about the beauty of life. Sixty-some drifting orbits after Woolf, Dillard writes:

Whether these thoughts are true or not I find less interesting than the possibilities for beauty they may hold. We are down here in time, where beauty grows. Even if things are as bad as they could possibly be, and as meaningless, then matters of truth are themselves indifferent; we may as well please our sensibilities and, with as much spirit as we can muster, go out with a buck and wing.

The planet is less like an enclosed spaceship — spaceship earth — than it is like an exposed mangrove island beautiful and loose. We the people started small and have since accumulated a great and solacing muck of soil, of human culture. We are rooted in it; we are bearing it with us across nowhere. The word “nowhere” is our cue: the consort of musicians strikes up, and we in the chorus stir and move and start twirling our hats. A mangrove island turns drift to dance. It creates its own soil as it goes, rocking over the salt sea at random, rocking day and night and round the sun, rocking round the sun and out toward east of Hercules.

Teaching a Stone to Talk remains one of the most poetic and profound books of the twentieth century. Complement this particular portion with the forgotten 19th-century woman who pioneered the art of astropoetics and Primo Levi on the spiritual value of space exploration, then revisit Dillard on the color blue, the two ways of looking, the greatest animating force of creative work, choosing presence over productivity, and reclaiming our everyday capacity for joy and wonder.

Published May 31, 2018




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