In Chapter Four of Annie Dillard's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she recounts an experiment by the 19th century French entomologist J. Henri Fabre. Working with pine processionary caterpillars, who travel through forests in single file, led by a silken marker laid out by the leader, Fabre lured them onto the rim of a large vase, where they marched around in a circle. Fabre wanted to see if they would realize they were trapped in useless motion, and do something to change their path. But, to his amazement and horror, the caterpillars continued marching in the same circle for over a week, unable or unwilling to change their course despite lack of food, the heat of day and the cold of night.
Out on the gallery at Vaughan's Lounge one afternoon here in New Orleans, a tussock moth larvae was trapped in its own lonely circle of hell, going round and round the rim of an ashtray. My friends and I saw it, and then, repelled at its bizarre, almost dangerous tufted yellow appearance, turned away and sat at the other table. Yet when we passed the ashtray again a little later, it was still there, marching around and around.
Dillard contemplates this "blindered and blinkered enslavement to instinct." Fabre calls it the "abysmal stupidity of insects" who "lack the rudimentary glimmers of reason" that would lead them to abandon a futile effort.
This has been an odd summer for me; one of tremendous change and yet numbing stasis. I procrastinate and put off creative work. I fall into mindless routines to take up my time, and though my kitchen is sparkling clean, my inner life is neglected. I fixate on the same emotions that repeat like an endless loop in my head, reliving old arguments or seeking to undo old mistakes. Like Fabre's caterpillars, I sometimes try to stray from the path, seeking nourishment, adventure, or escape, but am so often pulled back to it.
The inability to change, to gain a higher understanding of our place in the world and our own agency to forge a path for ourselves is what Dillard calls "The Fixed." It is, she says
a world without fire - dead flint, dead tinder, and nowhere a spark. It is motion without direction, force without power, the aimless procession of caterpillars around the rim of a vase, and I hate it because at any moment I myself might step to that charmed and glistening thread.At Vaughans, once she realized the caterpillar was trapped, my friend Becky decided to rescue it. Together with another friend, LJ, she lured it onto a piece of cardboard and then took it across the street to a young cypress tree and coaxed it onto the leaves.
I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek just after it came out, in 1975. It was my last year in college, my first painful experience with love, and a time when I learned to let go of some childhood myths. I still have the same tattered paperback copy I bought then. Its pages are fragile and stained now, but I remember how her exploration of nature, and the cosmos opened my eyes and helped me orient myself in whatever new world I would inhabit.
|A photo of Becky - posted with her permission. I think this is the night she rescued the crawfish - which is another example of how much of a hero Becky is!|
|Wish me luck|