May 12, 2016
Wilson's Warbler in Palo Brea
I must have discovered Annie Dillard back in the late ‘70s when Pilgrim at Tinker Creek established her as an eminently readable writer plumbing life’s big questions through the prism of nature.  My immediate thought was how cool it would be to be married to this woman.  Of course that wasn’t going to work out since I was already quite happily married, but my second thought was that I wanted to be Annie Dillard, writing about nature from a perspective at once both macro and telephoto, observing it on hands and knees while applying its lessons from the mountaintop.  Or the confessional.

I got to thinking about this upon recently reading a review of Dillard’s oeuvre.  Dillard is younger than I, alive and well, and still writing.  Because I have read little of her recent work the review was a bit of a guilt trip, but I distinctly recall that after reading Pilgrim her work began to feel like a guilty pleasure.  I wanted to embrace the beauty and wonder of nature without slip-sliding off into theodicy as Dillard was wont to do.

I was surprised to learn that Dillard had converted to Catholicism.  My journey in the other direction probably began as a ten year old altar boy when I was “privileged” before mass to kneel before the archbishop of my diocese and kiss his ring.  It didn’t help that this luminary was grossly overweight and wearing enough gold and red raiments to put our real deal Northern Cardinals to shame.  Looking back it seems reminiscent of a scene out of the bar in Star Wars.

A quirky habit I picked up from Dillard in Pilgrim was counting the number of birds anytime I noted a flock flying over.  I don’t recall now why Dillard did this, but to this day I still catch myself doing it.  Reading the tea leaves, perhaps just looking for a sign.  It is deep in our human DNA to engage the natural world in this way, just as is the need to embrace Catholicism or any of the other belief systems that make us feel connected to something out there greater than ourselves.

For years now, decades really because time does in fact fly, I’ve written up nature as a cathedral.  Last month our Palo Brea burst forth with thousands of bright thumbnail yellow blossoms which, with April’s winds, rained down upon our yard, covering everything with shifting, shimmering gold.  And then one day, because of the unpredictable miracle that is spring migration, two male Wilson’s Warblers appeared in the Palo Brea, flitting here and there as they gleaned the bees and other bugs feeding in the yellow buds, a surreal visual and mental feast of yellow gold on yellow gold.

My cathedral trumps the archbishop’s, and my visitation is frequent and freely embraced.  It is neither required nor expected of me, nor is it necessitated by Dillard’s need to reconcile a world of suffering and uncertainty with a world of beauty and wonder.  I believe that those of us who truly love nature keep these worlds parallel, even as the former is all twitterpated over the third word of this paragraph.

One of Dillard’s seminal moments described in Pilgrim was the discovery of the carcass of a frog, its innards dissolved and sucked out by a giant water bug.  Yesterday, wandering with the camera along Cave Creek below Elephant Mountain, I chanced upon a Woodhouse’s Toad struggling in the water with a Black-necked Garter Snake.  Enthralled, I watched in awe, and I make no apologies for feeling not a trace of the angst which would have occupied Dillard and the theodists.
Garter snake with frog