Playing with Bird Bones In A Room With No View: A Journey Through Selected Works of Annie Dillard.
Dedicated to the memory of Max Richards. Friend and poet mentor.
Narrator: Annie Dillard: ponderer of life, astute observer of nature. Her prose constantly calls us to position and reposition ourselves in response to her ideas and those of other quoted essayists, poets, philosophers, scientists, rabbis, anthropologists……. Statement of fact and interpretative meaning often go hand in hand. Sometimes it feels as if we, the reader, fall through her prose. Sometimes, it’s like journeying through dense bushland. Her voice is bold; she makes plain statements but seems to withdraw just as quickly, to let silence and gaps speak as eloquently as any well-formed phrase spiced with artless aside. She is a writer slippery as an eel who leads the reader down into caverns of ideas and questions: about life, suffering, God, existence. She challenges us and plays with us. But there is a tender quality to her prose, a kindness even in throes of her tearing passions, or barking at God, or sudden unexpected shift of reasoning. She always has us the reader in hand; not tightly, but as invitation, utilising her sharp wit and craft, humour to full effect. A wily weaver of phrases; her writing is soaked with humanity.
American Childhood: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, in a house full of comedians, reading books. Possibly because Father had loaded his boat one day and gone down the Ohio River, I confused leaving with living, and vowed that when I got my freedom I would do both.
Narrator: American Childhood is Annie Dillard’s autobiography and here she consciously constructs a portrait of her early life and her growing sense of selfhood in the world. She is the eldest of three girls: Amy, second. Dillard tells us Amy ‘was a looker’ and that Annie had ‘made several attempts to snuff baby Amy in her cradle’.
American Childhood: Mother had repeatedly discovered me pouring glasses of water carefully into her face.
Narrator: But Molly, the youngest, as a baby was different.
American Childhood: I liked everything about her - the strong purity of her cheerfulness, bewilderment, outrage; her big dumb baldness, pointy fingers, little teeth, the works.
Narrator: However, it’s adolescence that tells us most about Annie Dillard’s emerging self in the world.
American Childhood: I was what they called a live wire.
Narrator: Adolescence is her first great awakening. All sorts of dynamic emotions were bubbling up inside her. Anger she describes then as feeling…..
American Childhood: ….myself coiled and longing to kill someone or bomb something big…..
Narrator: So too, aspects of life and other people became apparent.
American Childhood: ……..Sometimes in class I couldn’t stop laughing; things were too funny to be borne. It began then my surprise that no one else saw what was so funny.
Narrator: As a teenager Dillard read Rimbaud, the French symbolists, British War Poets, Lucretius, Hardy, Updike, Emerson……
American Childhood: I read with the pure exhilarating greed of sixteen, seventeen year olds; I felt I was exhuming lost continents and plundering their stores.
Narrator: She discovered passion.
American Childhood: I loved my boyfriend so tenderly, I thought I must transmogrify into vapour. It would take spectroscopic analysis to locate my molecules into thin air. No possibly way of holding him was close enough. Nothing could cure this bad case of gentleness except, perhaps, violence: maybe if he swung me by the legs and split my skull on a tree? Would that ease this insane wish to kiss too much his eyelids outer corners and his temples, as if I could love up his brain.
Narrator: During these years, her energy and her questioning broke many social boundaries: she wrote a ‘fierce’ letter to her minister and quit the church; she was suspended from school for smoking cigarettes; she played her father’s snare drum so hard ‘on a particularly piercing rock-n-roll down beat’ that she broke straight through it. Taking up an offer to join a drag race with some boys she hardly knew and in the process breaking both her knees, she was sent to juvenile court - her parents were horrified to read an account of the incident in a newspaper. But it was during this period too, Dillard came to realise that adolescence is a time when although your consciousness is being opened, other unanticipated realities hinder your spirit.
American Childhood: For as long as I could remember I had been transparent to myself, unselfconscious, learning, doing most of every day. Now I was in my own way; I myself was a dark object I could not ignore. I couldn’t remember how to forget myself….I was a boulder blocking my own path……Must I then lose the world forever that I had so loved? Was it all, the whole bright and various planet, where I had been so ardent about finding myself alive, only a passion peculiar to children, that I would outgrow even against my will?
Narrator: Well, the world that she had so loved wasn’t lost. What she illustrates for us in her subsequent literary career is that life is a series of awakenings. To be an ardent lover of life actually involves an ongoing process of questioning, wondering, suffering, knowing the suffering world. The boulder of herself that blocked her own path actually became the very place for her own passionate consciousness to discover new paths. ‘We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught, to wake up’ she says in Total Eclipse. And as her own adolescent consciousness awoke, she began that lifelong recognition that we are all forever bonded to this particular present moment; to our present circumstances.
American Childhood: I am or seem to be on a road walking.
Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos: Being here is being here on the rocks.
Holy the Firm: I seem to be on a road, standing still.
Narrator: It’s from trust in this place where she ‘seems to be’ that she ‘seems’ to sense the vibrations below the surface of the planet; vibrations which are in touch with what she calls in Holy the Firm, the Absolute at base. God.
A familiar phrase in mystical writings (which here is the context I am most interested in concerning the writings of Annie Dillard) is that if God were to be symbolised as a circle, then God’s centre is nowhere and circumference is everywhere. It’s a phrase that Lawrence Freeman, Benedictine monk and Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, used in his series of talks ‘Return to the Centre’ at a silent retreat he gave in Italy in 2010. The circumference of my own textual discussion will limit itself to only some of Dillard’s essays and extended reflective writing (not her fiction): Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, For the Time Being and Holy the Firm, Expedition to the Pole, Seeing, Galapagos, Lenses and Field of Silence. Several of these works appear in the volume titled after the story, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and either in full or edited in The Annie Dillard Reader and her latest publication, Abundance. This is my circumference, but what of a centre in Dillard’s writing?
In the first of his retreat papers, Lawrence Freeman explained that the word ‘centre’ in physics means the ‘centre of mass’ which is the mean location of all the mass in the system. Thus, your ‘centre of mass’ is where all the mass measured on the scales in the bathroom is located; a rigid body has a fixed centre. However, because we are in constant change, (like a loose distribution of masses, the solar system or even, for that matter the church) the centre of mass for these kinds of bodies is a point in space. This means in a dynamic, moving body the centre of mass does not have to be identified with a particular thing. So too, outside physics, the centre can have a geographical location and an inward apprehension; it is ‘out there’ in the world and ‘in here’ in your being. The word ‘centre’ itself comes from the Latin word ‘centrum’ referring to the fixed point of the two points of the compass. Behind that is the Greek word, ‘kentron’ meaning a sharp point, the sting of a wasp, related to the Greek word, ‘kentein’ to stitch, related to ‘kent’ to prick something. Thus, the word ‘centre’ has idea of precision, stability, sharpness, fixity in some way and also is dynamic and open and moving. So a centre: 1. fixed, yet moving, and 2. in the world, and in yourself.
Dillard is a shape shifter of prose; each of these works seem to move the reader through bundles of images and metaphors, themes constantly bob up to disappear again and emerge pages later, or in other works. Passages seem to cross space and time. The reader remembers impressions, passages out of context or locates them in various forms in different essays over different periods of time. But there’s always some sense, albeit elusive, that something is holding all this together. There is a ‘kentron’ in her body of work. And intuitively for me, this fixed point of the compass lies somewhere outside the text.
So where is this centre point of gravity in Dillard’s writing? One hint is that in all these essays and extended reflections Annie Dillard chooses to use the voice of the first person. This first person is a consciously crafted Dillard persona. And when you hear the voice of this persona across her various works you begin to sense this deeper place from where Dillard is speaking. This is why I have decided to present this paper this afternoon in the form of a play or a pageant. To understand a little of that deeper place where Dillard is coming from, it helps to hear this voice of her persona, her carefully crafted ‘I’, across a number of these works. Each character in this pageant is the title of one of her essays or books.
In Holy the Firm, Dillard quotes Psalm 24: ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his Holy Place?’ In these two questions I trace a hint of ‘kentron’ pushing into the text. Dillard herself is taking on this task to ascend the holy hill, stand before God, knowing that ‘those who have clean hands and pure hearts’ which the psalmist calls for, is actually really a call for every single one of us, blundering and awkward and impure, to orient ourselves toward this sacred ground. She emphasises: ‘There is no-one but us’. She sees herself to be a traveller toward and a witness of a God who is personally involved in creation and with His people. This is the Christian God, the New Testament God, who is increasingly seen to be for her of infinite depth and breadth, of ultimate mystery. This is the God of the Church, in all its beauty, its flawed notations, the God of all people even in, especially in, our human absurdities. This is the God of Love. And because of that strong, deep apprehension of the action of Love which I hear again and again in her works, I would like (as Narrator) to try and help us in a small way understand the writings of Annie Dillard as those being of a Lover.
One of Dillard’s own great loves is the ‘broadax.’ Use of this tool, this large axe with a broad blade, is not just for hewing timber or as a weapon, but can actually inform your determination to become a writer. In Holy the Firm, Dillard puts a question to students in her writing class.
Holy the Firm: Which of you want to give your lives and be writers?
Narrator: Her question is immediately linked in with her own inward sensations…
Holy the Firm: I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me.
Narrator: … and then, with a further bracketed aside, leaving this question still breathlessly hanging, she questions herself:
Holy the Firm: (Is this what we live for? I thought; is this the only final beauty: the colour of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?)’.
Narrator: And only then does she give us the students’ response.
Holy the Firm: All hands rose to the question. (You, Nick? Will you? Margaret? Randy? Why do I want them to mean it?) And then I try to tell them what the choice must mean: you can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax ….they had no idea what I was saying….they thought I was raving again. It is just as well.
Narrator: But in The Writing Life she is quite emphatic with the reader, (after all, we must not think she is ‘raving mad’); she tells us that when you write, you must …
The Writing Life: … aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood, aim for the chopping block.
Narrator: The ‘broadax’ is a determination to look at your life with full force and without flinching; it is that inner tool which cuts through everything that gets in the way of your art. It operates in relationship with vision. The vision itself…
The Writing Life: … is no marvellous thing…it is a chip of the mind, a pleasing intellectual object….It is a vision of the work, not of the world…A writer sees the world, sees nature, sees God, sees life, and goes at it with a broadax of language and vision. All the time knowing the work is not the vision itself….It is not the vision reproduced in time…it is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try - you try every time - to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.
Narrator: Dillard, of course, is a lover of the artist, the word spiller. Although she has written about her drawing pursuits, (generally not very flatteringly), I haven’t yet seen any of her art work published. For her, the vision is best communicated by the broadax of language. That’s where her sense as the artist lies.
The Writing Life: …..the sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring.…the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace…
Narrator: In preparing this piece about Annie Dillard’s work, I too have only the same word stuff with which to respond. I asked myself, how can I respond to such a sophisticated artful mistress of word?
Annie Dillard herself poses the question like this: Who will teach me to write? She then answers…
The Writing Life: The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because action is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellencies as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you write.
Narrator: I am mindful too at her insistence that the writer…
The Writing Life : …..give it all now, spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
Narrator: So, in my attempt to give it all, and with the help of my own paltry broadax, (as if this action were easy, a mere swing of a sentence, instead blundering lurches) here – already after seven pages - we go with Annie.
Annie Dillard is a lover of fixed points. Often these points are described locally, geographically or by noting the time of day. Whatever awareness we may personally have about a ‘kentron’ in life, we can never control life itself. Her statements are bold, categorical, confident. Words fall as quotable aphorisms or elongated, dense reflections upon the page. Her ideas are often rounded off with a pointed wry tone.
Holy the Firm: We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all. We sleep in time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.
Narrator: Her own prose is most often not driven by reason or narrative sequence, but fixed moments propelled with personal insight in urgent need of utterance, or questions of cosmological meaning. Chronos time can quickly shift into kairos. Tenses become blurred. For her concern is always….
Holy the Firm: Not events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turnings.
Narrator: Phrases themselves seem to wriggle and thrash under the pin of her sharp pen. She wrestles to pin down time itself.
Holy the Firm: If days are gods, then gods are dead, and artists pyrotechnic fools. Time is a hurdy-gurdy, a lampoon, and death’s a bawd. We’re beheaded by the nick of time. We’re logrolling on a falling world, on time released from meaning and rolling loose, like one of Atlanta’s golden apples, a bauble flung and forgotten, lapsed, and the gods on the lam.
Narrator: We sense the reader could enter almost any piece of her writing at any paragraph on any page and move outwards in their reading of the text from here. In other words, the narrative as such isn’t simply a linear read - through from page 1 to 50. This is not because there is no narrative structure. The work still generally makes much more sense when you read it from beginning to end. However, the poetic prose is often jammed packed with stories, quotes, a bizarre range of seeming distractions, and a flowing, a stream of ideas settling into the echoing themes. Each paragraph possesses its own sharp message. Each paragraph stings like a wasp. But her writing also opens itself like the petals of a flower whose root system lies unuttered below the text; palpitating and silent, but continually urging articulation, providing life force for the work. It is as if another presence is out to insist itself into her work. A presence that is organic, dynamic. Towards the beginning of Holy the Firm Dillard tells us….
Holy the Firm: Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity chips time.
Narrator: Well, the ‘little violence’, the ‘corner where eternity chips time’, I can only surmise is actually the fixed point of the tragedy that happens to young Julie Norwich (resonances of her name to the medieval mystic, I’m sure not unintentional). Her face is burnt off when the airplane her father is flying crashes. Dillard hears the crash happen. In this work Dillard makes it her business to question the meaning of horrific suffering. Is Dillard here making her own point that language is totally ineffective when depicting such a horror? Is she implying that the implications of such an event can never be realised only via language? For the work, remember, is not the vision, but the golem. Any understanding to be had from the nature of such a tragedy a person has to go deeper; a person has to connect with something that connects with something that touches, however lightly or minimally, what Dillard names as Holy the Firm, the Absolute.
Fixed points. Moving centres. Dillard is also a lover of edges. Of geographical outposts. The Arctic, the Galapagos. Of uncharted inner landscapes. North Puget Sound where she has lived is characterized by saltwater bays and islands carved out by prehistoric glaciers. She walks the edges of these places. The environment you choose to write in also must have that sense of outpost. It must be free from distraction of the world. You must have ‘a room with no view.’ It can be anywhere: a carrel room at night in a University Library in California, a prefabricated pine toolshed cum writing room on Cape Cod. But it must have that remote edge quality. Inner revelation only happens on the border of boundaries. In ‘a room with no view’ the outer world is taken in and reshaped more clearly. It’s the place where an artist sees more deeply.
Holy the Firm: The room I live is plain as a skull; a firm setting for windows.
Narrator: Until Dillard actually names her environment, whether it’s Galapagos or Cape Cod or Puget Sound, one is never quite sure exactly where she is. Sometimes it feels like she could be in any of these places. Ultimately, this edge is illusive. As consciousness begins to awaken, places become hazy. But as consciousness clears, insight is realised, geography gains clarity. In Holy the Firm Dillard refers many times to a map of islands. She struggles to remember the name of each island. As the essay unfolds and with it the articulation of her own expanding consciousness, her own coming to terms with suffering and its meaning in the world, more and more of these islands start being seen, until she says towards the end…..
Holy the Firm: …..there are thousands of new islands today, unchartered. They are salt stones on fire and dimming.
Narrator: The more we understand, the wider the territory extends, and we are given new places to move on into.
Dillard is a lover of imagery and ideas; she piles one idea on top of another. Her writing can haunt the reader.
Life on the Rocks - Galapagos: I’m dealing in imagery, working toward a picture.
Narrator: Many and various word pictures ripple through her texts. The image of ‘fire’ recurs through Holy the Firm. It burns off Julie Norwich’s face in the plane accident. Gut wrenching and appalling as this mental picture is, the fire has other meanings for Dillard. It is fire that bursts open the moth’s head in the flame of a candle so its body becomes a second wick; it is fire that is remembered as having burned in Rimbaud’s head.
Holy the Firm: What can any artist set on fire but his world?
Narrator: Rimbaud’s own ….
Holy the Firm: …..face is a flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see.
Narrator: The tail of Dillard’s cat Small, catches fire so she has to quickly rub it out before Small notices. Fire, is a force of violence and a purifier of spirit, an artistic inspiration and prayerful supplication.
Another image in Holy the Firm is god or gods, spelt with a small ‘g’. These are pagan gods who bring meaning and contentment, or rage and distraction. They bring moods and energy, their own climate into the world. They are like human impulses, our reactions to what is happening around us, which we both honour and are at the mercy of.
Holy the Firm: Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.
Narrator: Dillard ‘wakes in a god’; at breakfast the cat Small brings in a dead wren to her, presumably he has caught; and then later brings in a little ‘scorched’ god…..
Holy the Firm: … save for his wings he is a perfect, very small man.
Narrator: Dillard rescues this scorched god and he companions her that morning. He….
Holy the Firm: …..rides barefoot on my shoulder, or astride it, or tugging or swinging on loops of my hair.
Narrator: There are many other references to these daily domestic gods appearing in Holy the Firm…..
Holy the Firm: The god of today is rampant and drenched…..The god of today is a boy, pagan and fernfoot…The god of today is a child, a baby new and filling the house, remarkably here in the flesh….That day was a god too…..the god of today is a glacier…a delinquent, a barn-burner….
Narrator: But when Dillard finally spells God with a capital ‘G’ that’s when we know she’s really serious; this is the one true God. This is the Holy the Firm God. The biblical God. The God with whom we are accorded to have relationship. The God we reach out to in prayer.
Holy the Firm: …a nun lives in the fires of the spirit…thoughtful and tough in the mind…
Narrator: Julie Norwich is remembered before the accident to have dressed Dillard’s cat Small so it unintentionally looked like a nun. Towards the end of the work Dillard thinks Julie Norwich ‘might as well be a nun.’ But in the final sentence of the work, it’s Dillard who takes ownership of this metaphor and by doing so blesses her young friend.
Holy the Firm: Julie Norwich; I know. Surgeons will fix your face. This will all be a dream, an anecdote, something to tell your husband one night: I was burned….So live. I’ll be the nun for you. I am now.
Narrator: We, the reader, share the metaphor. We too, somehow finally become the nun, for Julie, for Annie. As the nun image becomes transferred from character to author, it beckons to us. We are all taken into this relationship with this ultimate capital ‘G’ God. It’s as if Dillard is saying, this is how it is for me, and now asking, how is it for you? Dillard doesn’t explain. It’s left to us in what’s unsaid to make the connections.
Dillard is a lover of silence. And hers is a profound love, I think, because she knows the truth of it. Once when living at a place called ‘the farm’ in Puget Sound, she saw
Silence: … silence heaped on the fields like trays.
Narrator: It was a lonely time in her life, although at the time she didn’t know it. She saw these fields bear the silence.
Silence: The silence spread over them, giant in size.
Narrator: It revealed to her something of the loneliness in God.
Silence: I do not think I want to ever see such a sight again……..the silence bashed me broadside from the heavens above me like yard goods…….the silence of matter caught in the act and embarrassed.
Narrator: Silence for her is both a noun and a verb; something tangible, and something dynamic.
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Nature’s silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block. The Chinese say that we live in the world of ten thousand things. Each of the ten thousand things cries out to us precisely nothing. The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters. It is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings.
Narrator: Silence is inherent in teaching a stone to talk. We can teach it to talk only by understanding what it tells us about ourselves. We want the stone to talk, but are we ready to hear it? Are we ready to hear truth within ourselves?
Dillard is a lover of nature, of observing nature, and observing nature particularly in action.
Teaching a Stone to Talk: We are here to witness. There is nothing else to do with those mute materials we do not need….That is why I take walks, to keep an eye on things. And that is why I went to the Galapagos islands.
Seeing: It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open. Nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot?
Narrator: Annie Dillard is a watcher in the world. Always trying to see afresh, more clearly. In the Writing Life she plays with a bird bone until she can really begin to see it. She is aware that sometimes we don’t see straight; seeing properly takes time. In order to see we may need time, and even absence can help. Like everyone else who visited the Galapagos she tells us that she too at first ‘specialised’ in the enjoyment of watching the playful joyful life of sea lions. But it was only after a period of absence and return to the island that she began to really see the ‘palo santo tree’, thin pale wispy. Now she would no longer like to ‘come back’ as a sea lion but a palo santo tree……
Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos: …..on the weather side of an island, so that I could be, myself, a perfect witness, and look, mute, and wave my arms.
Narrator: Seeing is an act that is both fixed and moving, destabilising.
Lenses: ….. through binoculars I followed the swans, swinging where they flew. All their feathers were white; their eyes were black. Their wingspan was six feet; they were bigger than I was. They flew in unison, on behind the other….As I rotated on my heels to keep the black frame of the lenses around them, I lost all sense of space. If I lowered the binoculars I was always amazed to learn in which direction I faced - dazed, the way you emerge awed from a movie and try to reconstruct bit by bit, a real world, in order to discover where in it you might have parked the car.
Narrator: And watching the natural world can be problematic. Sometimes it can lead us to go badly off centre and lose our bearings.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: This looking business is risky……..Once I stood on a humped rock on nearby Purgatory Mountain, watching through binoculars the great autumn hawk migration below, until I discovered that I was in danger of joining the hawks on a vertical migration of my own. I was used to binoculars, but not, apparently, to balancing on humped rocks while looking through them. I staggered. Everything advanced and receded by turns; the world was full of unexplained foreshortenings and depths. A distant huge tan object, a hawk the size of an elephant, turned out to be the browned bough of a nearby loblolly pine…I reel in confusion. I don’t understand what I see.
Narrator: There are also things in the world that we would like to see but we can’t with the naked eye. They are too small. There are the minutiae of ‘aerial detritus’, abundance that flies in the air.
For the Time Being: A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. Spider legs are flimsy……because they are hollow, they lack muscles; compressed air moves them. Consequently the snap off easily and blow about.
Narrator: The process of evolution itself at this minutiae level is a fascination for her.
Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos: Now we see the embellishments of random chromosomal mutations selected by natural selection and preserved by geographically isolate gene pools as fait accompli…
Narrator: As a child Dillard spent periods of time gazing at life under her childhood microscope. Having replaced the 5-watt bulb with a 75-watt one, she spent evenings in her basement laboratory pouring over her pond water amoebae and rotifers on under glass slides.
Lenses: I dropped (the pond water creatures) on a slide, floated a cover slip over them, and laid the slide on the microscope’s stage, which the seventy five watt bulb had heated like a grill. At once the drop of pond water started to evaporate. Its edges shrank. The creatures swam among algae in a diminishing pool. I liked this part. The heat worked form as a centrifuge, to concentrate the biomass. I had about five minutes to watch the members of a very dense population, excited by the heat, go about their business until - as I fancied sadly - they all caught on to their situation and started making out their wills.
It was, then, not lonely watching the much-vaunted wonders in a drop of pond water; I was also, with mingled sadism and sympathy, setting up a limitless series of apocalypses. I set up and staged hundreds of ends-of-the-world and watched, enthralled, as they played themselves out. Over and over again, the last trump sounded, the final scroll unrolled, and the known world drained, dried and vanished. When all the creatures lay motionless, boiled and fried in the positions they had when the last of their water dried completely, I washed the slide in the sink and started over with a fresh drop. How I loved that deep, wet world where the coloured algae waved in the water and the rotifers swam.
Narrator: The minute world of the amoebae and rotifers is contexualised on the grandest scale possible: the apocalypse at the end of the world. Even at this level, existence has serious meaning. But the prose is hilarious too. Dillard is a lover of humour and irony, gentle self-mockery. It is never far off. Her gaze is dead straight, blunt as a broadax, and also amused at the imperfections in human actions, a wry humour, but never cynical nor derisory. There are no cheap shots. Here, with the wisdom of years and moral understanding, she parodies her childhood self as a God staging ‘hundreds of ends-of-the-world’ scenes of life under microscopic observation. But with her humour there is also underlying seriousness. We must own and take responsibility at some point in our lives for the havoc we can wreak upon creation. It’s one of many lessons in teaching a stone to talk.
Teaching a Stone to Talk: It is difficult to undo our own damage….it is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind….
Narrator: Like Teilhard de Chardin in For the Time Being, Dillard is a lover of life lived as a journey that is both purposeful and paradoxical.
Life on the Rocks: The Galapogos: We are strangers and sojourners, soft dots on the rocks.
Sojourner: ….the planet itself is a sojourn in airless space.
Narrator: The essay For the Time Being is an extended reflection on the journeying of the Jesuit philosopher and French palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is subsequently edited and included in the book Abundance. Teilhard de Chardin, in exile from the Church from the early 1920s, banned from teaching and publishing because of his Darwinian interests but permitted to undertake scientific research and travel, he nonetheless remained faithful to his Jesuit vows. Intermixed with questions and observations concerning ontological meaning and existence, Dillard describes his journey in 1923 through the plateau, the Ordos, of the Inner Mongolian Desert and sketches the rest of his life til his death in 1955. His travels and writings become the vehicle for her own internalised reflections. There’s a double vision happening here. For Teilhard de Chardin, as for Annie Dillard, life retains this sense of life as change and reformation, a sojourn in mystery.
For the Time Being: I’m beginning to think that I shall always be like this and that death will find me a still a wanderer.
Narrator: Dillard is a lover of science, of archaeology; she questions how things work and where they come from. Uncovering ancient ruins is like unearthing buried wisdom. She writes with relish about Teilhard de Chardin’s explorations.
For the Time Being: They dug through sixty four feet of sand before they revealed an ancient hearth where Paleolithic people cooked…
Narrator: The scientific composition of and reasons for sand, clouds, landscape fascinates her, fills her with more questions.
For the Time Being: Everything sifts over things as dirt or dust…..Why is there sand in deserts? Where does it come from? Why is there sand on beaches?
Narrator: Her answers can be lengthy and scientific; like de Chardin’s mixed with philosophical insight.
For the Time Being: Sand bangs about in deserts and wears down their angles. Kuenen went so far as to determine how much desert the world “needs” - 2 X 10 square kilometres, in order….to keep the world average roundness constant (to offset the new, sharp-cornered sand added each year)…We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine…and yet at the same time everything is in motion.
Narrator: Dillard is a lover of distilled essence. Of the journey toward the sublime. For her, like Teilhard de Chardin….
For the Time Being: Purity does not live in a separation from the universe…but in deeper penetration of it.
Narrator: Deeper penetration of the universe involves journeying toward some unnameable experience of the sublime or the Absolute. She describes it in An Expedition to the Pole as a journey toward an…
An Expedition to the Pole: …….imaginary point on the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction…… or named in metaphysics, The Absolute……...that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point in all directions. Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble. It is also - I take this as given - the pole of great price.
Narrator: In this journey we have the capacity to act absurd and ridiculous. Her essay An Expedition to the Pole once more employs this double vision of two parallel narratives working together. As she narrates 19th century polar expeditions, she weaves through it a description of her attending Mass in a Catholic Church during Advent. Both activities, the polar expedition and the Catholic Mass, involve pursuit of the sublime; and both are littered with the consequences of absurd human flaws.
Going to Mass on one particular morning, Dillard tells us that she has now…..
An Expedition to the Pole: …..joined the circus as a dancing bear…we mince around the rings on our two feet……Today we were restless; we kept dropping onto our forepaws. No one, least of all the organist, could find the opening hymn. Then no one knew it. Then no one could sing it anyway. There was no sermon, only announcements.
Narrator: In both narratives the closer the Absolute is thought to be, the more likely there is to be ridiculous human action. Two doomed ships, under the command of Sir John Franklin, left London in 1845 seeking the North West Passage, fitted out with voluminous libraries, and ill-equipped sailors. Twenty years later search parties found bodies scattered over the ice. Beside many of the bodies were silver cut initialled officer cutlery; beside one body ‘a piece of the very backgammon board Lady Jane had given her husband (the captain) as a parting gift’.
The Mass Dillard attends builds up to ‘the solemn saying of those few hushed phrases known as the Sanctus’. And just as the congregation is ‘about to utter the word of the Sanctus, the lead singer’ from the band called Wildflowers ‘burst onstage from the wings…..his enthusiastic strides, pumping his guitar’s neck up and down….’ Dillard ponders…..
An Expedition to the Pole: Must I join this song? May I keep only my silver? My backgammon board, I agree, is a frivolity. I relinquish it. I will leave it right here on the ice. But my silver? My family crest? One knife, one fork, one spoon, to carry beneath the glance of heaven and back? I have lugged it around for years; I am, I say, superlatively strong. Don’t laugh. I am superlatively strong! Don’t laugh; you’ll make me laugh. The answer is no. We are singing the Sanctus it seems, and they are passing the plate. I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny - but these purely personal preferences are of no account and maladaptive to boot. They are passing the plate and I toss in my schooling; I toss in my rank. I, the Royal Navy, my erroneous and incomplete charts, my pious refusal to eat sled dogs, my watch, my keys and my shoes. I was looking for bigger game, not little moral lessons - but who can argue with conditions?’ “Heaven and earth, earth, earth, earth’ we sing. The withdrawn boy turns his head toward a man in front of me, who must be his father. Unaccountably, the enormous teenaged soprano catches my eye, exultant. A low shudder of shock crosses our floe. We have split from the pack; we have crossed the Arctic Circle, and the current has us.
Narrator: But within this context, for all its absurdity, God is there, intensely within our human dimensions. We are not abandoned, but there with Christ…
An Expedition to the Pole: Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ feet, handles their very toes, and repeats it is alright - believe it or not - to be people. Who can believe it?
Narrator: This same God too, does not smash her to smithereens when she really lets rip at Him in Holy the Firm. Taking on the suffering of Julie Norwich she broadens this to the suffering of the world. Like Job, she questions God in passionate rage.
Holy the Firm: Of faith I have nothing, only of truth; that this one God is a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matters unhinged. This is no leap, this is evidence of things seen; one Julie, one sorrow, one sensation bewildering the heart, and enraging the mind, and causing me to look at the world stuff appalled, at the blithering rock of trees in a random wind……Faith would be…that God has any wilful connection with time whatsoever, and with us. For I know it as given that God is good……the question is then whether God touches anything. Is anything firm or is time on the loose? …how do we know, how could we know that the real is there..?
Narrator: And it’s only after all this spiritual struggle, in the first line of the section appropriately titled Day 3 (In The Annie Dillard Reader), that she shifts our thinking sideways by opening with…..
Holy the Firm: I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasion, and leaves his creations’ dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were; God kann nicht anders. This process is time is history; in space, at such shocking random, it is mystery.
Narrator: And this, I believe, is where all her writing is coming from: worship of God. God is the mass; God is the centre. In this worship of God is the recognition of mystery. The processes of life itself can take us to this place of worship. Whatever God’s relationship with creation, whatever the suffering, God still ‘has a stake guaranteed in all the world.’ For without God’s light the world is…
Holy the Firm: ….. ‘wasteland and chaos’ just as ‘a life without sacrifice is an abomination’.
Narrator: Annie Dillard is a lover of God. A God who is committed to the particular and local, whose unending energy flows through His creation.
For all the uncomfortable struggles and questions about suffering, meaning, life and existence, for all that seems ludicrous, at the end of An Expedition to the Pole, the depth of her devotion to God erupts into the text. Like the biblical Miriam, after the liberation of the Exodus, Dillard in the Catholic Mass also belts out on her tambourine. She’s found that space inside herself where she can glimpse that transparency of self which she had as a child, yet still value that boulder which blocks her path and upon which she continues to hone her vision. She so beautifully captures here that sense of a vibrant moving inner centre; and I read her here as an ecstatic, a whirling dervish:
An Expedition to the Pole: In my hand I discover a tambourine. Far ahead, out on the brittle horizon, I see tabular bergs and floebergs and dark cracks in the water between them. Low overhead on the underside of the thickening cloud cover are dark colorless stripes reflecting pools of open water in the distance. I am banging on the tambourine, and singing whatever the piano player plays; now it’s “On Top of Old Smokey.” I am banging the tambourine and belting the songs so loudly that people are edging away. But how can any of us tone it down? For we are nearing the Pole.
An American Childhood
Holy the Firm
Life on the Rocks
The Writing Life
Teaching a Stone to Talk
Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
For the Time Being
An Expedition to the North Pole