E S S A Y S , A R T I C L E S A N D R E V I E W S
EarthSaint: Annie Dillard
Introduced by Cheryl Lander
EarthLight Magazine #24, Winter 1997
About Annie Dillard:
Writer and poet Annie Dillard was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
She attended Hollins College in Virginia, and in addition to authoring
several books, has been a columnist for the Wilderness Society; has had
her work appear in many magazines including The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine,
The Christian Science Monitor, and Cosmopolitan; has received fellowship
grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment
for the Arts; and has received various awards including the Washington
Governor's Award, the Connecticut Governor's Award, and the New York Press
"I am no scientist," she says of herself. "I am a wanderer with a
background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts." She adds,
"As a thinker I keep discovering that beauty itself is as much a fact,
and a mystery...I consider nature's facts -- its beautiful and grotesque
forms and events -- in terms of the import to thought and their impetus
to the spirit. In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence;
I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find
mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy."
Environmentalists have compared Dillard to Thoreau, Dickinson, and Emerson.
Edward Abbey wrote this about Teaching a Stone to Talk: "This little
book is haloed and informed throughout by Dillard's distinctive passion
and intensity, a sort of intellectual radiance that reminds me of both
Thoreau and Emily Dickinson." Loren Eiseley, reviewing Tickets
for a Prayer Wheel, says this about her: "She loves the country below.
Like Emerson, she sees the virulence in nature as well as the beauty that
entrances her. Annie Dillard is a poet."
While gathering information for this piece, I spoke with Annie who said
she was very honored to be our first living EarthSaint. When asked for
biographical information that would reflect her ideas about nature and
spirituality, she said she has not made such a statement, commenting "I
just write books." A co-worker of mine, when she heard we were featuring
Annie's work, announced that Annie's book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
was "her Bible." Annie helps us read what Thomas Berry calls the
"primary scripture" of the natural world in a new and meaningful way.
Selections from the work of Annie Dillard
I live by a creek, Tinker
Creek, in a valley in Virginia's Blue Ridge... The creeks -- Tinker and
Carvin's -- are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is
the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies:
the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of
the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness
of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.
Trees have a curious relationship
to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in
the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can't think
about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our
feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly
in the same filament of air we inhabit, and, in addition, they extend impressively
in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their
real business just out of reach. A blind man's idea of hugeness is
a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner
fresh water; they abide.
I would like to learn, or
remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn
how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don't think
I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular...but I might
learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the
physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.
The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and
dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as
I should...And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel's: open
to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing,
choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.
If the landscape reveals
one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of
creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first
place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances,
flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness...The whole show
has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my
eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is
tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.
My God, I look at the creek.
It is the answer to Merton's prayer, "Give us time!" It never stops....
You don't run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets.
You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You'll have fish
left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition,
Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present
for a present on its birthday every day.
You are God. You want
to make a forest, something to hold the soil, lock up solar energy, and
give off oxygen. Wouldn't it be simpler just to rough in a slab of
chemicals, a green acre of goo?
The creation is not a study,
roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly,
extravagantly, and in fine... Even on the perfectly ordinary and
clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable
and apparently uncalled for. The lone ping into being of the first
hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely
it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens.
You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.
The creator goes off on
one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with
an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned
energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here?
The point of the dragonfly's terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong,
or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it
all fits together like clockwork -- for it doesn't, particularly, not even
inside the goldfish bowl -- but that it all flows so freely wild, like
the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom
is the world's water and weather, the world's nourishment freely given,
its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.
Every live thing is a survivor
on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we
are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, "The heaven and the earth and
all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?" It's a good question.
What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void
with an unthinkable profusion of forms? ...If the giant water bug was not
made in jest, was it then made in earnest?
I came here to study hard
things - rock mountain and salt sea - and to temper my spirit on their
edges. "Teach me thy ways, O Lord" is, like all prayers, a rash one,
and one I cannot but recommend. These mountains -- Mount Baker and
the Sisters and Shuksan, the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on
the peninsula -- are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world....
That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding
them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them, as Chesterton said
of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious by their very visibility and
absence of secrecy.
Esoteric Christianity, I
read, posits a substance. It is a created substance, lower than metals
and minerals on a "spiritual scale," and lower than salts and earths, occurring
beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on
the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with
the Absolute, at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base.
The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.
All day long I feel created.
I can see the blown dust on the skin on the back of my hand, the tiny trapezoids
of chipped clay, moistened and breathed alive.
Like boys on dolphins, the
continents ride their crustal plates. New lands shoulder up from
the waves, and old lands buckle under. The very landscapes heave;
change burgeons into change. Gray granite bobs up, red clay compresses;
yellow sandstone tilts, surging in forests, incised by streams. The
mountains tremble, the ice rasps back and forth, and the protoplasm furls
in shock waves, up the rock valleys and down, ramifying possibilities,
riddling the mountains. Life and the rocks, like spirit and matter,
are a fringed matrix, lapped and lapping, clasping and held.... The planet
spins, rapt inside its intricate mists. The galaxy is a flung thing,
loose in the night, and our solar system is one of the many dotted campfires
ringed with tossed rocks.
Selections are from the following books by Annie Dillard:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Holy the Firm
Teaching a Stone to Talk
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