Loving the Tree of Life: Annie Dillard on How to Bear Your Mortality
“We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water.”
By Maria Popova
“To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier,” wrote Walt Whitman a century and a half before Richard Dawkins considered the luckiness of death as a radiant token of the improbable odds of having lived at all. Death — the harrowing fact of our mortality — is the central animating force of life, the one great terror for which we have devised the coping mechanisms of love and art. Everything we make, everything we do, is a bid for bearing our transience. And yet this is the native poetry of the cosmos — in a universe churned by entropy, the very fact of our impermanence is life’s most enduring source of meaning.
That is what the uncommonly poetic and penetrating Annie Dillard explores throughout her book For the Time Being (public library), published in the final year of the world’s deadliest century.
With an eye to sand — Earth’s emissary of deep time, builder and dismatler of civilizations — Dillard writes:
Since sand and dirt pile up on everything, why does it look fresh for each new crowd? As natural and human debris raises the continents, vegetation grows on the piles. It is all a stage set — we know this — a temporary stage on top of many layers of stages, but every year fungus, bacteria, and termites carry off the old layer, and every year a new crop of sand, grass, and tree leaves freshens the set and perfects the illusion that ours is the new and urgent world now. When Keats was in Rome, he saw pomegranate trees overhead; they bloomed in dirt blown onto the Colosseum’s broken walls. How can we doubt our own time, in which each bright instant probes the future? We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water.
In every arable soil in the world we grow grain over tombs — sure, we know this. But do not the dead generations seem to us dark and still as mummies, and their times always faded like scenes painted on walls at Pompeii?
We live on mined land. Nature itself is a laid trap. No one makes it through; no one gets out.
“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness,” David Foster Wallace wrote as he reckoned with mortality and redemption, “has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” In consonance with Wallace, Dillard writes:
Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us? We easily regard a beehive or an ant colony as a single organism, and even a school of fish, a flock of dunlin, a herd of elk. And we easily and correctly regard an aggregate of individuals, a sponge or coral or lichen or slime mold, as one creature — but us? When we people differ, and know our consciousness, and love? Even lovers, even twins, are strangers who will love and die alone. And we like it this way, at least in the West; we prefer to endure any agony of isolation rather than to merge and extinguish our selves in an abstract “humanity” whose fate we should hold dearer than our own. Who could say, I’m in agony because my child died, but that’s all right: Mankind as a whole has abundant children? The religious idea sooner or later challenges the notion of the individual. The Buddha taught each disciple to vanquish his fancy that he possessed an individual self. Huston Smith suggests that our individuality resembles a snowflake’s: The seas evaporate water, clouds build and loose water in snowflakes, which dissolve and go to sea. The simile galls. What have I to do with the ocean, I with my unique and novel hexagons and spikes? Is my very mind a wave in the ocean, a wave the wind flattens, a flaw the wind draws like a finger?
We know we must yield, if only intellectually. Okay, we’re a lousy snowflake. Okay, we’re a tree. These dead loved ones we mourn were only those brown lower branches a tree shades and kills as it grows; the tree itself is thriving. But what kind of tree are we growing here, that could be worth such waste and pain? For each of us loses all we love, everyone we love. We grieve and leave.
Complement with Marcus Aurelius on embracing mortality and the key to living fully, Rilke on befriending our transience, Marguerite Duras on our only taste of immortality, and physicist Alan Lightman on what actually happens when we die, then revisit Dillard on how to live with mystery and what Earth’s most otherworldly tree teaches us about being human.
Published April 30, 2023