Being There

Last year, at age 70, Annie Dillard received a National Medal for the Arts and Humanities for, as the citation put it, “her profound reflections on human life and nature.” The presentation, made at the White House, had a valedictory air, as if capping a career that’s more or less concluded. A similar sense of summation informs The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, which collects a sampling of the nonfiction Dillard has written for more than four decades, much of it about the natural world.

Annie Dillard’s career took off in 1975, when she won a Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a chronicle of her excursions into the fields, woods, and mountains near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. The book’s blend of nature writing and cosmic speculation invited comparisons to Henry David Thoreau, another author who found mystery and adventure just beyond the back door.

Like Thoreau, Dillard argues for mindfulness as a moral imperative, advancing intense observation as a gateway to wisdom. Chiming with Thoreau’s Walden and Cape Cod, as well as Melville’s Moby-Dick and the poems of Emily Dickinson, Dillard also acknowledges nature as not merely a benign tableau of pastel sunsets and gurgling brooks, but a complicated mix of transcendence and terror. In a passage from Pilgrim included in The Abundance, Dillard describes a day off the coast of Florida:

One late afternoon at low tide a hundred big sharks passed the beach near the mouth of a tidal river in a feeding frenzy. As each green wave rose from the churning water, it illuminated within itself the six- or eight-foot-long bodies of twisting sharks. The sharks disappeared as each wave rolled toward me; then a new wave swelled above the horizon, containing in it, like scorpions in amber, sharks that roiled and heaved. The sight held power and beauty, grace tangled in a rapture of violence.

In staring down this contradiction, or so Dillard seems to say, we find the central predicament of existence​—​and the chance to grasp what it means to be fully human. At another point in Pilgrim, Dillard wonders if beauty, like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, registers its presence even if no one is there to perceive it: “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

The promise of new material in The Abundance is fulfilled, but just barely. Of the 22 essays here, only 1 hasn’t been previously published in book form. Dillard’s website lists some 30 essays on various topics, a number of them quite good, that have yet to make it between covers. The Abundance would have been an obvious place to gather them, but Dillard has shied away from the kind of omnibus projects that bring material with no common theme under the same roof. When the essays of Teaching a Stone to Talk appeared in 1982, Dillard mentioned that “this is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work; instead, this is my real work, such as it is.”

Like that earlier project, The Abundance arranges selections from Dillard’s writing into a subtle narrative arc. It begins with “Total Eclipse,” where Dillard mentions miners so close to the earth’s core that their hands recoil from the heat, and concludes with “An Expedition to the Pole,” in which she shifts thematically to the top of the planet.

The real subject of “Total Eclipse,” as the title suggests, is the moon’s fleeting blackout of the sun, which Dillard witnessed in Washington state on “February 26, 1979, a Monday morning.” In including the date, Dillard reminds us that events of great wonder are nevertheless grounded in the temporal realm of everyday life. As the sky blackens like a mythical plague, she looks down a hillside and scans the traffic. “Four or five cars pulled off the road,” she reports.

The rest, though, in a line at least five miles long, drove on into town. The highway ran between hills; the people could not have seen any of the eclipsed sun at all. Yakima will have another total eclipse in 2039. Perhaps, in 2039, businesses will give their employees an hour off.

Although the workaday world speeds along, apparently unmoved by an event in the sky worthy of the Old Testament, Dillard hints that the divine must inevitably be tempered by the domestic, since a life of looking at miracles nonstop would be like an unblinking stare into some biblical burning bush, simply too intense for mortal eyes. “One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief,” she concludes after the eclipse ends. “From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”

Dillard compares the eclipse to a mushroom cloud, a lens cover, the lid of a pot, and a wedding ring, as if trying on metaphors for size. Vivid images inform Dillard’s prose, an extension of her origins as a poet before Pilgrim launched her fame. Indulging the excesses of modernist verse, Dillard can make a fetish of obscurity. She sometimes seems to go mad in midsentence, lapsing from lucidity into literary moonshine, a vaporous amalgam of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Agee, and Kahlil Gibran. In a passage from the largely unreadable narrative Holy the Firm that’s excerpted here, Dillard details the arrival of morning: “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.”

Similarly ethereal parts of Pilgrim prompted Eudora Welty to declare in a review that “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.” Geoff Dyer quotes Welty’s critique in his introduction to The Abundance, where he concedes Dillard’s eccentricities and winkingly observes that she’s “pretty much a fruitcake.” But Welty also noted that, when Dillard isn’t going off on a Tantric tangent, she can excel at straight narrative. That talent is most evident in An American Childhood, Dillard’s charming 1987 memoir of growing up in postwar Pittsburgh. Dillard writes of her parents with striking clarity and abiding affection, and like Elizabeth Bishop and Virginia Woolf, she has a way of deftly capturing the comic strangeness of what it’s like to be a child.

The Abundance excerpts eight chapters from the memoir, including a pitch-perfect recollection of a misadventure with snowballs and a fond remembrance of her parents’ genius for telling jokes.

Although probably her best book, An American Childhood doesn’t neatly fit into Dillard’s more celebrated canon of nature writing. But its generous appraisal of family foibles tacitly acknowledges that nature also includes Homo sapiens, perhaps its most peculiar creation of all.

The Abundance reveals Dillard as a writer for whom oddity has been a creative resource​—​and, when embraced too freely, an occupational hazard.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Advocate in Baton Rouge, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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