Annihilation’s narrator—an unnamed biologist—describes the mysterious Area X as a “pristine wilderness.” By contrast, the world where humans live (outside Area X’s border) has been spoiled. But the biologist’s work and life experiences have taught her about nature’s ability to reclaim human environments, such as an abandoned swimming pool or an empty lot. It seems that nature is actually more powerful than humanity—and Area X is constantly expanding beyond its borders, which seems like an ominous sign for humankind. By the end of the novel, the biologist is the only one on her team to survive Area X. She does so not by separating herself from it, but by allowing herself to be integrated into the environment, leaving the base camp to live alone in the wild. In this way, the book subverts the idea that humans can control the nature around them and suggests that nature is far more powerful and persistent than human beings are.
Before visiting Area X, the biologist observes how natural environments are able to reclaim areas that have been decimated by human activity, demonstrating nature’s persistence. When she was growing up, the biologist’s house had a swimming pool in the backyard that her parents didn’t take care of. Within months of them moving in, the pool became its own ecosystem, filled with animal and plant life. This fascinated the biologist and inspired her to study nature—she loved seeing how nature could find a way to flourish even in the most sterile environments. Later in her life, the biologist also obsessed over an empty lot near the house she shared with her husband. From a tire track, a puddle formed that quickly began to teem with new life. She called it her patch of “urban wilderness,” an oxymoron suggesting that no matter the environment, nature can reclaim its territory when given the opportunity. But the biologist understands that nature doesn’t only overtake human environments—it also overtakes humans themselves. Early in her career, she seemed to “lose [her]self” in studying tidal pools in remote locations. She relates this to Area X, saying that she experiences the same thing there. She writes, “That's how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.” “Colonize” is a word often used to refer to people establishing control over land or other people, and by using it to describe what the tidal pools and Area X are doing instead, she reinforces nature’s persistence and power over humans.
From the outset, the biologist recognizes that Area X is more powerful than she and her team are. On their very first day at base camp, the biologist inhales spores that start to influence her brain and body, enhancing her senses and making her immune to hypnotic suggestion. Later, the psychologist also becomes infected by Area X, causing her to glow and grow fuzzy vegetation on her body. This establishes how the nature in Area X has its own power to change human beings, not the other way around. Area X also seems to be actively trying to encroach on human-settled territory, as its border is expanding outward. And Area X seems not to intend to coexist with humanity, since its environment has lots of defenses against human incursion (violent creatures, a dangerous and mysterious boundary, etc.) In this way, the book suggests that Area X will slowly take over human life. Ultimately, the biologist posits that this may actually be good for the world: she writes, “I can no longer say with conviction that [Area X’s expansion] is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much.” She acknowledges that humans have the power to change the world, but Area X has shown that nature has an even greater power to change it back.
Knowing this, the biologist comes to believe that the only way to survive Area X is not to defeat it, but to become part of it. Many previous expeditions relied on the lighthouse (an emblem of human civilization) for safety, but this was an “illusion”—human civilization could not keep anyone safe, as shown by the scene of chaos and bloodshed inside the lighthouse. From this, the biologist learns that in order to survive Area X, “You had to fade into the landscape.” In other words, to survive Area X, she has to become part of it. Over the biologist’s time in Area X, the spores continue to grow and take over the rest of her body, which she calls a “brightness” spreading inside her. This infection heightens her senses and even allows her to endure two gunshots. By joining with nature and allowing herself to be overcome by the spores, she not only loses some of her humanity, but she also gains power and is able to survive injuries she would not otherwise have been able to survive because of nature’s power. The biologist’s final decision further illustrates this point. She chooses not to return home but instead to remain in the wild, becoming a part of the landscape rather than viewing herself as separate from it. Because she is the only person from her expedition to survive Area X, she confirms that only those who submit to nature are able to survive it, reinforcing humans’ lack of control in comparison to nature’s power.
Nature, Power, and Persistence ThemeTracker
Nature, Power, and Persistence Quotes in Annihilation
Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
Most important, however, I now could guess at one way in which the spores had affected me: They had made me immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions. They had made me into a kind of conspirator against her. Even if her purposes were benign, I felt a wave of anxiety whenever I thought of confessing that I was resistant to hypnosis—especially since it meant any underlying conditioning hidden in our training also was affecting me less and less.
I now hid not one but two secrets, and that meant I was steadily, irrevocably, becoming estranged from the expedition and its purpose.
But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you, and you become lost in your thoughts in part from the panic of realizing the size of that imagined leviathan. I had to leave it there, compartmentalized, until I could write it all down, and seeing it on the page, begin to divine the true meaning. And now the lighthouse had finally gotten larger on the horizon. This presence weighed on me as I realized that the surveyor had been correct about at least one thing. Anyone within the lighthouse would see me coming for miles. Then, too, that other effect of the spores, the brightness in my chest, continued to sculpt me as I walked, and by the time I reached the deserted village that told me I was halfway to the lighthouse, I believed I could have run a marathon. I did not trust that feeling. I felt, in so many ways, that I was being lied to.
Then the dolphins breached, and it was almost as vivid a dislocation as that first descent into the Tower. I knew that the dolphins here sometimes ventured in from the sea, had adapted to the freshwater. But when the mind expects a certain range of possibilities, any explanation that falls outside of that expectation can surprise. Then something more wrenching occurred. As they slid by, the nearest one rolled slightly to the side, and it stared at me with an eye that did not, in that brief flash, resemble a dolphin eye to me. It was painfully human, almost familiar. In an instant that glimpse was gone and they had submerged again, and I had no way to verify what I had seen. I stood there, watched those twinned lines disappear up the canal, back toward the deserted village. I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage.
But fun for me was sneaking off to peer into a tidal pool, to grasp the intricacies of the creatures that lived there. Sustenance for me was tied to ecosystem and habitat, orgasm the sudden realization of the interconnectivity of living things. Observation had always meant more to me than interaction. He knew all of this, I think. But I never could express myself that well to him, although I did try, and he did listen. And yet, I was nothing but expression in other ways. My sole gift or talent, I believe now, was that places could impress themselves upon me, and I could become a part of them with ease. Even a bar was a type of ecosystem, if a crude one, and to someone entering, someone without my husband’s agenda, that person could have seen me sitting there and had no trouble imagining that I was happy in my little bubble of silence. Would have had no trouble believing I fit in.
The lighthouse had drawn expedition members like the ships it had once sought to bring to safety through the narrows and reefs offshore. I could only underscore my previous speculation that to most of them a lighthouse was a symbol, a reassurance of the old order, and by its prominence on the horizon it provided an illusion of a safe refuge. That it had betrayed that trust was manifest in what I had formed downstairs. And yet even though some of them must have known that, still they had come. Out of hope. Out of faith. Out of stupidity.
But I had begun to realize that you had to wage a guerrilla war against whatever force had come to inhabit Area X if you wanted to fight at all. You had to fade into the landscape, or like the writer of the thistle chronicles, you had to pretend it wasn’t there for as long as possible.
“I’ll give you this scrap: The border is advancing. For now, slowly, a little bit more every year. In ways you wouldn’t expect. But maybe soon it’ll eat a mile or two at a time.”
The thought of that silenced me for a long moment. When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire. The black boxes might do nothing but in my mind they were all blinking red.
I didn’t tell my husband my walk had a destination because I wanted to keep the lot for myself. There are so many things couples do from habit and because they are expected to, and I didn’t mind those rituals. Sometimes I even enjoyed them. But I needed to be selfish about that patch of urban wilderness. It expanded in my mind while I was at work, calmed me, gave me a series of miniature dramas to look forward to. I didn’t know that while I was applying this Band-Aid to my need to be unconfined, my husband was dreaming of Area X and much greater open spaces.
There were thousands of “dead” spaces like the lot I had observed, thousands of transitional environments that no one saw, that had been rendered invisible because they were not “of use.” Anything could inhabit them for a time without anyone noticing. We had come to think of the border as this monolithic invisible wall, but if members of the eleventh expedition had been able to return without our noticing, couldn’t other things have already gotten through?
Imagine, too, that while the Tower makes and remakes the world inside the border, it also slowly sends its emissaries across that border in ever greater numbers, so that in tangled gardens and fallow fields its envoys begin their work. How does it travel and how far? What strange matter mixes and mingles? In some future moment, perhaps the infiltration will reach even a certain remote sheet of coastal rock, quietly germinate in those tidal pools I know so well. Unless, of course, I am wrong that Area X is rousing itself from slumber, changing, becoming different than it was before.
The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much.
Observing all of this has quelled the last ashes of the burning compulsion I had to know everything… anything… and in its place remains the knowledge that the brightness is not done with me. It is just beginning, and the thought of continually doing harm to myself to remain human seems somehow pathetic. I will not be here when the thirteenth expedition reaches base camp. (Have they seen me yet, or are they about to? Will I melt into this landscape, or look up from a stand of reeds or the waters of the canal to see some other explorer staring down in disbelief? Will I be aware that anything is wrong or out of place?)
I plan to continue on into Area X, to go as far as I can before it is too late. I will follow my husband up the coast, up past the island, even. I don’t believe I’ll find him—I don’t need to find him—but I want to see what he saw. I want to feel him close, as if he is in the room. And, if I’m honest, I can’t shake the sense that he is still here, somewhere, even if utterly transformed—in the eye of a dolphin, in the touch of an uprising of moss, anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps I’ll even find a boat abandoned on a deserted beach, if I’m lucky, and some sign of what happened next. I could be content with just that, even knowing what I know.