By Robert Barossi
Reading the first chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it never crossed my mind that she might be telling fibs. In part, it may have been due to the fact that I’ve always enjoyed Dillard’s work. Hearing that she fabricated a story about a tomcat was surprising and a bit disappointing, but only briefly. That is to say, I continue to give her the benefit of the doubt regarding the rest of her writing. No other part of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, chapter one, struck me as potentially fabricated. Nothing I’ve read about her leads me to believe she has a reputation for that sort of thing.
On her official website, Dillard says, “My journals were full of facts that I used to write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a sustained nonfiction narrative about the fields, creeks, woods, and mountains near Roanoke, Virginia.” If she had made up vast sections of her book, lying at length about Roanoke, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and other natural features, that would be different (and I can find no evidence of that being the case). I would be upset, for example, if it turned out that John Muir never really spent any time in the Sierras and lied about all of it. Like Dillard, I give him the benefit of the doubt, tending to believe he actually observed everything he claims he did. And I have no problem with the figurative, metaphor-laden way he describes it. I believe nature writers have latitude to embellish or exaggerate slightly, especially if it helps tell the story and doesn’t rob the narrative of its central truth, the “facts of nature” at the story’s heart.
Nature writers walk a fine line in this regard. On the one hand, they are tasked with providing an accurate and authentic account of what they observe. On the other hand, they’re trying to connect the reader to nature and do so, in part, through a kind of artistic or poetic license. Using metaphors, imagery, lively prose, flowery language and other tools, they draw the reader in, engage the reader, excite the reader and provide a relationship to a place the reader has probably never been. Using the creative tools at their disposal, they imbue the natural and/or nonliving world with mystery and spirit. This makes their stories, which might otherwise be overly scientific, matter-of-fact, or boring, more approachable and palatable to the average reader. Still, they must not break the trust or faith the reader puts in them.
What of Dillard’s cat story, then? I don’t consider that to be a major breach of trust, especially since there has been no indication that she repeated the offense, or that she did it with malice at heart. More than a terrible crime by itself, it may have more power as a kind of precedent. Critics of Dillard or any other nature writer can look to this incident and say, “It happened once. Why not again? Here, look, this story sounds like it might be made up too!” This is where the danger lies, in the potential for a slippery slope where all nature writing is doubted or questioned.
An important part of the controversy over verisimilitude in nature writing is the fact that it’s a potential tool against any natural history or environmental writing. Anyone who dislikes a nature writer can make an accusation which, in many cases, can never be proven conclusively true or false. The writers are the only ones who truly know and, in most cases, we have only what they wrote to go on. This is exactly what can be used against them, when accusations are thrown around carelessly, that nature writers are simply making things up, writing about events and phenomena which didn’t actually happen.
In February of 2012, an article appeared on the website of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University entitled “Nature Fakery.” In the article, Bruce Thornton invokes the idea of “nature fakers” to promote his own political, climate-change-denying agenda. He says, “Unfortunately…‘nature fakers’ are still promoting their sentimental myths about nature, only now with serious repercussions for our national interests and security. These days, ‘nature fakery’ lives on in school curricula and popular culture…Only now, this myth is renamed ‘environmentalism’ and disguised with a patina of scientific authority.”
It is now more important than ever for nature writers to remain as authentic and true to the facts as possible. If Thoreau had lied, who would have known? It’s likely he would never have been found out. If Burroughs or Clemens lied about what they saw at Mammoth Cave or along the Mississippi, who would have found out? Some, to be sure, but not as many as today. With our modern internet and twenty-four hour news cycle, an environmental writer who makes stuff up is quickly found out and instantly infamous. His name is dragged across the media and the court of public opinion may forgive or disgrace him depending on its whim. When someone like Thornton puts his incendiary words on a website, it’s there for all to see and fight over. These days, with a few mouse clicks, almost anyone can create controversy about anything.
The real crime would be for all discussions of nature or environmental writing to devolve into fights and controversies over the veracity of what is written. If we did nothing but debate whether or not everything is true, we would likely miss the bigger picture and the important points being made. Not to mention missing out on the gorgeously written words into which the writer likely put a lot of passion and effort. When used properly and appropriately, it is my belief that nature writers can and should continue to employ the poetry, metaphors and stylistic flourishes that are the tools of their trade. It would be a shame if readers were robbed of the beauty found in so many examples of the genre. What makes these writers so special is their ability to bring to life aspects of the natural world that many of us never experience or know
Nature writers can and should use their personal style to frame a narrative that remains accurate and authentic in regard to the facts of nature. Whether couched in theology, philosophy, mystery, spirit or metaphor, what they say about nature should be an honest observation of what they actually did or observed. If they claim to be authentic observers of nature, then what they write should be authentic.
Photo by Robert Barossi