Solar eclipses are not that unusual: we get about 2 or 3 a year somewhere on earth. In August 2017, America was set to experience a total solar eclipse over much of the country, and editors struggled to find copy that might convey the strangeness of the experience. The Atlantic magazine gave up on finding new material, instead reprinting an old essay, written 35 years previously, by a woman called Annie Dillard.
“It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into a fever, or falling down the hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.”
I was immediately hooked. This was my taste of the extraordinary voice of one of America’s finest writers – and I couldn’t quite believe, at the age of 52, it had taken me so long. I had vaguely heard of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Dillard’s first book) or was it Tinker at Pilgrim Creek? Either way, the combination of book title and the author’s name sounded tremendously dull, worthy and nineteenth-century. I was astonished to find that she is far from dead and about as far from dull or worthy as it’s possible to get. You won’t get much else out of her though.
“I can no longer travel,” she states on her website with characteristic shortness, “can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” And that’s that.
Her CV is a brief list of facts, in which her two (yes, two) Pulitzer Prizes are treated exactly the same as ‘Volunteer, St. Mary’s soup kitchen, Florida.’
In 2014, President Barack Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal “for her profound reflections on human life and nature. In poetry and in prose, Ms. Dillard has invited us to stand humbly before the stark beauty of creation.” He quotes a line from Emily Dickinson – “truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it” – adding, wrily, “That’s especially true in Washington.”
These days, it feels like Truth is yet another thing that has joined the IUCN Red List, rapidly sliding down the ratings from rare to critically endangered. But Dillard, bless her, is a hunter after deeper truths than politics can muster: we’re talking life, death, and “the stark beauty of creation” itself.
Here she is on encountering a weasel – or “Weasel!” as she puts it (it totally earns that exclamation mark) – in an essay from her 1982 collection Teaching a Stone to Talk:
“Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key. Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders…”
Dillard’s essays deliver a bright blow to the brain. She takes and remakes experience so you come away reeling: the words practically leap off the page and sink their teeth into your flesh, just as weasels, driven by deep instinct, do. One unfortunate man apparently had to walk half a mile with a weasel clamped around his hand, to find a river and “soak him off like a stubborn label.”
Another, shot an eagle out of the sky to find the dried up skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to its throat. This, Dillard suggests, is how we should live – driven by the necessity, the single-pointedness, that makes us most vividly who we are. “I think,” she writes, “it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you… Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”
Go find a copy of The Abundance or Teaching a Stone to Talk. Read and concentrate, and then go out into the world alert for wonders. As Annie Dillard, seventy-four this year, somewhere in America, is no doubt doing right now – her bright teeth fastened to the eagle of understanding, borne aloft.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, 29.3.19