Some weeks ago a friend (an archaeologist and therefore a man of science) and I were discussing a nature writer who was coming to town to promote his latest book. I asked my friend if he liked this writer’s work. He said he did. I said that I did, too, and that I thought this writer one of the better nature writers out there. My friend agreed then added, “Although I wonder if a lot of them aren’t actually writing fiction.”
Fiction isn’t exactly the word, but I knew what he meant. Many of you may be familiar with the opening scene in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I used to have a cat,” she says, “an old fighting tom…” The book’s first paragraph describes this cat’s habit of jumping through an open window at night and leaping onto her chest as she slept. “And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted in roses.”
A striking scene, and a famous one. Only it isn’t true. That is, it’s true but it didn’t happen. That is, it’s true, it happened, but it didn’t happen to Ms. Dillard. She admitted to “borrowing” the story from a graduate student, after asking his permission.
When word of Dillard’s confession got out, some devotees felt betrayed. They thought the mirage Dillard created undermined the value of the whole book. Others said it was no big deal: A good story’s a good story, true or not.
Dillard’s appropriation of her grad student’s cat story tells me two things. First, she was struck by the tale. It got to her, like a bit of foreign stuff sometimes gets to an oyster (and rarely, a clam). Her imagination began reworking the tale, giving it nacre and her own striking form. In this way, she made it “her” story. Well, this is something many of us do when we hear a story we like. We set it side-by-side with the story we’ve made of our own lives; we compare, we adapt, we adopt. Furthermore, among writers and storytellers that like each other, there’s bound to be some sharing of narrative and maybe even linguistic DNA.
Second, this part of the book, and maybe other parts, slips out of the realm of what’s called realism (in its broadest sense) and into the domain of fantasy, or maybe into a kind of bothersome, self-serving mysticism that makes everything over in its own fanciful image. No use trying to hold such stories to the same standard of truth as might be applied to other narrative traditions, like scientific theory and history. Right?
All the same, in my estimation, Dillard’s mirage—this one that we know of—moves her story more toward the kind of nature tale told in Poe’s fanciful poem the “The Raven” ( a “good story,” though not likely true) rather than, say, John Muir’s love stories about glaciers (not only much more rooted in actual experience but also more productive).
There are ways in which any narrative, no matter how supported by evidence, straddles the fence between what we call fiction (totally made up stuff) and absolute truth (a.k.a the whole truth). Today’s scientific facts, and the narratives about how the world works that they support, will be supplanted by better, more functional observations and stories, just as the bastions of modern scientific inquiry have built past the Pantheon’s official storyline. “Myth” is a complicated word, but one definition is “a fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology” (The American Heritage Dictionary). Contemporary science, if its analytically-inclined yarn spinners weave perceptive enough narrative tapestries, could become tomorrow’s The Odyssey or Metamorphoses. Especially if there are literary nature and science writers telling the tale as they experience it, rendering mathematics physical and revelatory, psychology a matter of erupting intelligence and all its attendant problems, and belief and the search for the divine a fully involved effort.
It was kind of funny, my archaeologist friend commenting on the narrative aspect of nature writing like he did. Because when I attended the aforementioned nature writer’s book promotion, the writer presented a remarkable slideshow and commentary on archaeology and its purposes, saying, “Anybody telling a story about archaeology is telling their story.”