Annie Dillard is a writer hungry for the world, yet she paces the feast by consuming her surroundings in tiny bites. In her books, she is a "collector and a sorter" (An American Childhood, 213) like the scientists she studies, noticing the things that "engage the curious mind: the way the world develops and divides, colony and polyp, population and tissue, ridge and crystal" (AC, 213). In Dillard's nonfictional prose, filled with majesty, wonder and awe, God is everywhere, manifesting himself in both horror and beauty, in the small, tiny details that pervade the Earth. A writer with diverse themes, Dillard takes as her subjects the spiritual outside, the development of her intellect, and the steps that result in a finished manuscript. For Dillard, fractional details — bugs, sentences, bits and pieces — are elemental in themselves, cutting to the core of existence and representing the whole in a more complete and spiritual way than any haphazard attempt at generalization. As she quotes in the final sentence to her personal and instructional defense, apology, and validation of the act of writing, The Writing Life, "'The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute,' Teilhard de Chardin wrote. 'To see this is to be made free'" (The Writing Life, 111). In order to see the Absolute, Dillard crawls on her knees to look at the life teeming in the dirt; she agonizes over each word, each sentence in a manuscript, sometimes for days; she tells the story of her childhood not in large vague terms, but through a collection of stories, each one focused on the compact and the minute — on freckles and hair, on the bits inside rocks.
Her prose questions lofty, weighty topics with the spiritual ease of a priest or theologian. Fearful of too quick a consumption, Dillard paces herself as a writer, as a human engaging in the pursuit of life — of the world. She focuses on parasites, on the specifics of sentences, on collections and their components, and on each tiny aspect of her first 18 years, illuminating rooms and memories, enlivening subjects with passionate force. This focus on the tiny, the compact, the microscopic — on those things viewed in isolation, through a microscope or by separating topics within the mind — lends three of her books, An American Childhood (AC), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (PTC), and The Writing Life (WL), an important collection of symbolical grotesques, vulgarities made fearsome because of their closeness to a world we prefer covered neatly with dancing wax. Dillard's nonfiction combines a diverse array of subjects, creating her characteristic style out of fractional elements. She zooms in on the small and the sometimes hideous, creating a world and a subject out of a series of gathered elements from books and stories that celebrates life in all of its variety and chaos — in its shapes teeming out of the dirt, in its horrors feeding on the earth, and in the pursuit of capturing the experience in words.
Life as a Collection of Bits and Pieces
Throughout all three books, Dillard favors a particular sentence structure, a rhythmic movement filled with a feeling of time. She writes repeatedly in this style — "night after night" (AC, 23); inch by inch (AC, 126); "I walked on, one step at a time" (PTC, 212). She discusses writing with the metaphor of a ladder: "You watch your shod feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest" (WL, 19). There is no limit to the number of rungs ahead, no stopping until the end has been reached. Writing, like life and nature as Dillard's subjects, is discussed as a collection of fragments, a passing of steps. Only with this sense of each small step ahead is the reader made to understand the magnitude of the world.
In the telling us about her youth, An American Childhood, Dillard considers each small experience or fragment throughout her life. Instead of focusing on tragedy or hardship, Dillard's autobiography reveals a mostly ordinary, common childhood. Due to this luxury of childhood, her autobiography concerns itself instead with a never-ending collection of details and small minutiae that depict childhood growth and understanding as resulting from a series of small steps, each individually given agency and importance when the text zooms in. For Dillard, her mind and soul awakens through books and exploration, with each tiny detail gleaned helping to somehow push her further to an understanding of the world around her. This understanding of life and of the world is predicated not on a singular revelation, but on tiny bits that come together slowly to form a whole. Dillard writes:
I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again. [AC, 11]
Discussing life as a series of intervals, Dillard asserts the authority of minutiae. Each step, each piece, is important, forming life as it exists today. Without each of these bits of understanding, Dillard's life would have been wholly different; she may have awoken to her senses later, or earlier, or not have fully understood the implications of this wakening to the rest of her life. In the passage above, Dillard emphasizes not the final result, the time when she would be "awake continuously and never slip back," but the process necessary to arrive at that final step. Truly seeing the world for its horrors, becoming acquainted with and accountable for the place you inhabit, is terrifying, Dillard remembers, yet the experience is recalled not as a final realization, but through each tiny moment of wisdom. Though this short paragraph does not list each bit of revelation individually, her book does, and Dillard paces herself and her discussion of the final result — the wisdom she acquired through those first eighteen years of loving and learning — by paying special attention to each small piece, each tiny habit, and each strange obsession that made her into the Annie Dillard she is today. If not for each book she touched and learned from, each person who was mystified by her spirit, she would not have fought life in the same way, experienced existence as a compilation of the overlooked, the underestimated, and the powerful.
A student of literature from a very early age, Dillard writes a prose and style that obviously relates to styles of much earlier nonfiction writers, including Samuel Johnson. Dillard, who writes always with some hesitancy, some humility, does not take as authoritative a stance as Johnson. The writing of Johnson, one of the first writers to develop the genre of creative nonfiction, reflects confidence and often begins with a generalization, such as "It may have been observed by every reader that there are certain topicks which never are exhausted" (Adventurer, 108). Still, though Dillard rarely generalizes her emotions or describes spiritual morals before listing a variety of small examples illustrating the statement, both writers do demonstrate themselves to be concerned with images instead of singular words, with each small connotation associated with one word. In the chapter titles to her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard magnifies the meaning of each small word she explores. "Seeing" becomes more than simply the prerogative of the eyes; it means not only to be capable of witnessing, but to actually be aware and alive; "Intricacy" is not just the quality of a sophisticated piece of fabric, but the very earth we walk on — each tiny, overlooked fish and bug and parasite. Johnson too examines association, giving images and detail to a single word — spring — and expressing obliquely the huge array of meaning in each sentence.
When a poet mentions the spring, we know that the zephyrs are about to whisper, that the groves are to recover their verdure, the linnets to warble forth their notes of love, and the flocks and herds to frisk over vales painted with flowers: yet, who is there so insensible of the beauties of nature, so little delighted with the renovation of the world, as not to feel his heart bound at the mention of the spring? [Adventurer, 108]
This insistence that words are evocative of something larger, and even that words alone can be frail and feeble (for meaning and association can constantly change; words are not stable) is common in both writers. Still, there are differences between Johnson and Dillard. Dillard personalizes these emotions, describing her private associations of words in addition to what others have written about, while Johnson generalizes the emotions for his entire audience. Dillard associates writing not with the description of general emotions, but with an intense study of the unique emotions stirred in the writer. In The Writing Life she describes this conception of writing — "A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light" (WL, 67). Thus, these clichés associated with spring, according to Dillard, are not interesting writing material. Instead, personal minutiae and individual passion are of interest. Dillard, as a writer with poetic phrases, embodies Johnson's point in the above paragraph but she adds upon it from the standpoint of a modern writer trying to make her prose stand out from others. Using her power of description and diverse skill to feed us not only the images we typically associate with nature, but to surprise us with things that are meaningful to her, she reveals to the reader phenomena that are exotic, yet exist right beneath our eyes.
Her interest in mysteries that are near to us yet overlooked make Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek very much a work of travel writing, yet instead of describing a place that the average reader will never go, Dillard writes about the horror and the beauty of a landscape directly beneath our eyes. In this book of compilation and seeing, Dillard explores the geography directly outside her door "by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia's Blue Ridge" (PTC, 4). Punctuated by sight, truly seeing the things that so often are overlooked or rarely acknowledged, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a study of nature experienced through its small parts, minute examples of the living earth that give structure and form to the larger idea of the world. In her book, Dillard attempts to gauge the scope of the world, to measure the vast geography of nature. Hers is an ode to the outside in all of its diverse possibilities — the creepy crawlers, the poisonous snakes, the deathly parasites — and an exhibit of the emotions it stirs — awe, fear, and indignity. With messily energetic prose that asserts the "breathing fact of its presence" (PTC, 196) with each question mark and each exclamation, Dillard's compilation is a journey on a massive scale, but each word, each sentence and each extended meditation on each tiny insect defends the importance of minutiae within the vast, orbiting globe. To recognize the whole, Dillard teaches us, one must understand detail; to truly perceive scope, one must be aware of fractions. It is by turning herself into a statue to watch the muskrats, bending down in the dirt to see the worms, and watching eggs hatch with the greatest respect and patience, that she begins to not only appreciate but to fully understand nature's cycles. It is a complex world indeed when each square centimeter of earth teems with life and detail, and it is Dillard's hope to show it to us.
Dillard's purpose — to encourage its readers to see everything that surrounds us in overwhelming, at times nauseating, detail — is only hinted at towards the middle of the book, when instead of focusing on the small, Dillard projects how all of these tiny elements add up to make the whole she seeks to investigate. The passage begins:
What else is going on right this minute while ground water creeps under my feet? The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening. If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow. The sun's surface is now exploding; other stars implode and vanish, heavy and black, out of sight. Meteorites are arcing to earth invisibly all day long. On the planet the winds are blowing: the polar easterlies, the westerlies, the northeast and southeast trades. Somewhere, someone under full sail is becalmed, in the horse latitudes, in the doldrums; in the northland, a trapper is maddened, crazed, by the eerie scent of the chinook, the sweater, a wind that can melt two feet of snow in a day. The pampero blows, and the tramontane, and the Boro, sirocco, levanter, mistral. Lick a finger: feel the now. [PTC, 98]
Although so much of Dillard's writing is grounded in the present, in the "now," this passage looks ahead, with a dizzying scope that moves from the broad galaxy to the detailed individual. In the passage she writes with impatience and wonder, hypnotizing the reader with lists depicting incomprehensible distance, a series of spontaneous events that characterize the world. While the earth continues through a series of seemingly arbitrary coincidences — each lucky fluke that prevents the meteorites from hitting, keeps the winds continually blowing, and the galaxy always widening — sailors get stuck, trappers get mad. This passage gives voice to all of the diverse phenomena happening right under our feet, as we sit in our rooms watching TV or sleeping. In An American Childhood, Dillard remembers her boyfriend who told her that sleeping can wait until she is dead, and how that statement inspired her with its devotion to life and sight. This passage similarly celebrates everything that happens on earth — from the dying bugs and deathly parasites to the small, intimate moments of love and memory that happen between families.
Seeing Life, Looking Beneath and Beyond
Dillard's depiction of sight, which is only possible if we look beyond what appears on the surface, is expressed as a metaphor in The Writing Life. There Dillard describes the lengths she went to in order to write: changing her environment, supporting herself with new skills, avoiding, and at times embracing, distraction in the hopes of reaching new insight. While renting a cabin in northern Puget Sound, Dillard had to learn how to chop her own wood for heat. After much struggle, she had a dream one night about the proper way to chop the wood — "You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it" (43). In order to see all the tiny minutiae that make up the earth, too, you have to somehow aim your eye past what is immediately obvious, into unknown realms. In order to train yourself to truly experience your surroundings, which in fact Dillard suggests is the human's ultimate task, you must look beyond the surroundings themselves.
Indeed, Dillard's books comprise a series of exercises and experiments in truly seeing — stages and steps that categorize the full process leading to true sight. This sight Dillard posits as a technique and skill that requires training, not as an innate capability with which we are all born. Still, it is ultimately necessary in order to truly live and appreciate the earth. In illustrating this idea, Dillard describes the "color-patches" (PTC, 31) that formerly blind patients immediately recognized after a surgery that restored sight. One patient, she quotes, "looked at [her hands] very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight" (PTC, 31). It is here that Dillard's fascination with minutiae is qualified; for an object to be often overlooked, it does not have to be exceedingly tiny, but merely something that is often viewed as merely ordinary and unimportant. Bugs and hands are the same in that they are common and rarely analyzed; Dillard shows that their analysis, their study, is an exercise in seeing the world as it truly is.
In An American Childhood too, Dillard writes about her discovery of the small things she had been trained to ignore. The book describes Dillard's first 18 years through stories and images, resulting in a final awakening, a final entry into the world that she thought she knew but had overlooked. In the following passage, knowledge of a place or of a memory or experience is described as something evolving and dynamic, not fixed. Though Dillard thought she knew and fully understood her neighborhood with the confidence and arrogance of a child, she would later discover things that had been previously invisible after reading books and seeking out life beneath the surface. Life, then, is evolving too, and knowledge is repeatedly revisited and built upon through the influence of even the tiniest, most ordinary sight or occurrence — like a baseball mitt (AC, 78) or reading the biography of George Washington Carver (AC, 170). For Dillard, the unearthing of new things sets her going, breeds determination to find out more, to see the bugs beneath the dirt, or to "learn all the world's languages" (AC, 170). Once finally seen or read or experienced, each of these small components become fully incorporated in one's worldview, and it seems impossible to imagine life before their discovery.
How confidently I had overlooked all this — rocks, bugs, rain. What else was I missing?
I opened books like jars. Here between my hands, here between some book's front and back covers, whose corners poked dents in my palm, was another map to the neighborhood I had explored all my life, and fancied I knew, a map depicting hitherto invisible landmarks. After I learned to see those, I looked around for something else. I never knew where my next revelation was coming from, but I knew it was coming — some hairpin curve, some stray bit of romance or information that would turn my life around in a twinkling. [AC, 165]
Like the passage depicting each bit of Dillard's awakening to the world, this passage gives voice and power to each minute turn in life, each second of new discovery that changes the course of one individual's existence forever. Like Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, which describes an exploration through Argentina, Dillard's books are journeys told through other books, where life and sight are products of each new literary discovery. Between the words on a page, in the spaces and pauses of literature, is life, and life for Dillard is a compilation of those things learned, stories told and gauged through writing. Dillard's books in themselves are specific tales of other books, with style and content learned through the memory of other writers. This community of writers, a collection of those things that have been written and printed, of knowledge that has been gleaned and placed in between two covers, is the source of Dillard's understanding. The known world, for all its mystery, can be explained, or at least understood and appreciated for its complexity, through other books.
Stories as Fragments, Stories as Obscuring the Truth
Not only are Dillard's books concerned with the philosophies and writing of people who have come before her, they are also filled with stories — stories that have happened to her, that she's learned through friendships, or even those that have been shaped by necessity — stories that, as Joan Didion writes, we tell ourselves "in order to live" (The White Album, 11). In An American Childhood, Dillard illuminates stories and characters that had before been darkened, giving power to their telling. Hers is a compilation of stories — of the co-ed dances she attended as a teenager, of the jokes her mother and father would tell, of summers spent at Lake Erie. Again, these stories are intricately laid chronologically to depict the creation of Annie Dillard as an 18-year-old ready to leave her Pittsburgh home for college. It is these stories, stories she grew up hearing or experiences she had and the perhaps flawed way in which she remembers them, that are the essentials of Dillard's life, and these minutiae — expressed as small moments, detached experiences — are more evocative and illustrative of the result than any philosophical statement. "If you like metaphysics," Dillard writes in The Writing Life, "throw pots" (WL, 46). Writing, instead of an abstract study, is grounded in the minutiae of the real world, in "materiality" (WL, 46) as expressed in stories.
In Dillard's books, stories repeat themselves, solidifying their importance and, in a sense, their magnitude, despite their small and fleeting, fragmented nature. One such story in An American Childhood is Dillard's father's journey to New Orleans. "He quit the firm his great-grandfather had founded a hundred years earlier down the river at his family's seat in Louisville, Kentucky; he sold his own holdings in the firm. He was taking off for New Orleans" (AC, 6). This story, one Dillard repeats throughout the book and uses as a marker in time and development — "When my father was motoring down the river, my reading was giving me a turn" (AC, 78) — is also important for the impact it had on Dillard's conception of life and its possibilities. Throughout the entire text, the story of her father leaving his comfortable home and all that was formerly expected of him becomes a possibility for Dillard — hope that she too will one day be able to leave home and forge her own path — but later turns into the marker of a juxtaposition between her youthful hope and her more realistic age. She writes:
Why not take up the trumpet, why not marry this wonderful boy, write an epic, become a medical missionary to the Amazon as I always intended? [AC, 254]
And then in the next paragraph, the final sentence of the book:
In New Orleans — if you could get to New Orleans — would the music be loud enough? [AC, 255]
By the end of the autobiography, just a few days before she will leave home for college, Dillard has learned to be less idealistic and has continually expanded her knowledge with books that have made her change her view of stories. Instead of assuming that perfection exists somewhere else — in New Orleans — she questions, "would the music be loud enough?" This example of an evolving story speaks to Dillard's view of tales as changeable, and is also part of the central point of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — that stories in a sense can blind us, preventing us from truly living. Myths of a peaceful, placid natural world prevent us from seeing the horrors that really occur in the dust and the ocean, and even if these stories are pleasant, they are lies. It is not up to the living, breathing human to forge a myth for himself to help him continue living; instead, it is our responsibility to dispel those myths that cause blindness. Indeed, the world is meant to surprise, shock and even scare, and if we close our minds to any possibilities of shock, we have in a sense resisted life. Instead of viewing stories as fixed and still, as small threads that continue on throughout entire lifetimes, Dillard's An American Childhood depicts this one story, as well as the others it describes, as only fixed within a given time period. Stories are constantly reinterpreted, discredited, and rediscovered as life moves on. It is only the theme behind this story — the idea of travel and escape — that remains important in Dillard's life, and though the context changes, this fragment of a childhood, a minute example of living, represents the major goals Dillard developed throughout those first 18 years, and signifies the source of the most difficult and mature realization she had to make.
In The White Album, Joan Didion's collection of essays and articles depicting the dislocation and dejection of the 1960s, she repeats stories as well, expressing tales as not only evocative of a time period, but as necessary in order to continue. Didion describes stories — the princess caged in the consulate, the man with the candy leading children to the sea, the naked woman on the ledge outside the window (The White Album, 11) — as myth, as shaped by fiction and necessity to remind us of a life we hope has meaning. All of these small stories represent the details that collectively make up a life, where life is depicted as an abstraction made up of borrowed stories and objects. Yet Didion, who views the world as a compilation of stories, is wary of the effect stories and myth play on life in the same way as Dillard. She writes in The White Album:
I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no "meaning" beyond their temporary arrangement, but a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and the narrative's intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was the begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical. [WA, 13]
It is after viewing horrors in Los Angeles, New York and Sacramento that those stories Didion had previously believed are discredited. "Certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew," (WA, 13) she writes, expressing a sense of betrayal, as if the stories she had previously believed had shut her off to the truth.
In a different way, Tom Wolfe depicts stories not as fragments, but as the driving force behind life. In The Right Stuff, the pilots and astronauts he depicts distract themselves from the danger and uncertainty of their lives and their occupations by indulging in a myth of invincibility, believing themselves exempt from any threat because of the unique combination of traits with which they each were blessed. For John Glenn, Pete Conrad, Al Shepard and the others, this story became a validation — a way to justify a dangerous line of duty with ideas of authority. Yet unlike Didion and Dillard, Wolfe speaks with understanding, almost admirably, of the pilots and their stories. These stories are necessary for them to live, and it is their willingness to believe the myth that keeps our country protected.
Both Didion and Dillard share similar conceptions of stories as small fragments which, added together, make up a life, and they both view stories as a way to escape horror. For both female writers, the repetition of stories tricks us into viewing the world in a false way, keeping us from seeing some of the horror that exists beneath our feet or beneath our eyes, preventing us from experiencing a valuable doubt or hesitancy about the world. Dillard writes about the mystery within rocks, the great beauty and secrecy hidden inside the boring outer layer of a rock, and applies this secret of the earth to all of life, to the stories that hide knowledge themselves by distracting or obscuring the truth. "Nothing was as it seemed. The earth was like a shut eye. Mother's not dead, dear — she's only sleeping" (AC, 139). In the end, though all three authors are concerned with stories as myths, Wolfe writes about the pilots' mantra as successful for its ability to distract, while Dillard and Didion consider stories only positive if there is room for evolution and change, not if they become a replacement for living.
Dillard's books, though praiseworthy of life, show life in all its forms — both gruesome and beautiful. Figuratively opening up the world, "bashing the landscape to bits" (AC, 139) and looking around at all of the microscopic objects existing in the dirt or all of the horrific tragedies occurring everyday without our even knowing, can be a disgusting, overwhelming experience. Dillard's microscope, which sends us down into the dirt to look at the bugs, turns us inside our own bodies to imagine the parasites living and breathing within us, is the main source of these shocking symbolical grotesques. Life, she shows us, is not always pretty, but the truth is far better than any glossed-over myth.
This idea of falsifying life by resisting its flaws is prominent in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. Though Wolfe may understand and encourage the myth of "the right stuff" because of its power to distract from danger, he is more critical of the way the media creates false stories. Wolfe researched his book and began writing it many years after the publicity buzz surrounding the space-race died down. His goal was to truly depict the American men who were the first to be launched into space, and to respond to the romanticized inaccuracies used to describe the astronauts. As an example of misrepresentation in the media, Wolfe writes about the photo shoot for the Life cover story, in which the seven wives of the astronauts were pictured looking flawless after their pictures were retouched beyond recognition. This physical example of untruth in the media demonstrates the common desire of the American public to view these men not as average people, people with fears and doubts and problems at home, but as heroes. The magazine and the public did not care to hear the truth; they preferred to live with inaccuracy, to believe in a story that they believed would help them live, but that actually closed themselves off from the truth. Wolfe writes:
Life had retouched the faces of all of them practically down to the bone. Every suggestion of a wen, a hickie, an electrolysis line, a furze of mustache, a bag, a bump, a crack in the lipstick, a rouge cilia of hair, an uneven set of the lips . . . had disappeared in the magic of photo retouching. Their pictures all looked like the pictures girls can remember from their high-school yearbooks in which so many zits, hickies, whiteheads, blackheads, goopheads, goobers, pips, acne trenches, boil volcanoes, candy-bar pustules, rash marks, tooth-brace lumps, and other blemishes have been scraped off by the photography studio, you looked like you had just healed over from plastic surgery. [The Right Stuff, 123]
Here, Wolfe lists an almost endless array of skin obstructions, hideous maladies that had been covered over and retouched to create a grand illusion of perfection. It is not that each woman's face was indeed covered with so many bumps and marks and pus boils; instead, Wolfe clearly exaggerates to give the reader a sense of how much has been covered up and denied. Instead of facing the truth of life in all of its flawed beauty, the media, personifying the American public in this context, prefers to live under an illusion, to trick itself into forgetting the truth.
The Horrific Microscope
Grotesques, like Wolfe's, abound in Dillard's work, especially in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard's book is flexible in scope; like a camera lens, she zooms in and out of scenes, at once showing us the intricately-laid veins within a goldfish's tail — "I saw red blood cells whip, one by one, through the capillaries in a goldfish's transparent tail" (PTC, 125) — and then zooming out to broad terms, to the mountain ranges, to the winds, to the entire globe (PTC, 140). This constant change in viewpoint and scope structures Dillard's argument. In a world where there is so much happening within a goldfish's four-inch body — "And, he has a heart" (PTC, 125) — it is overwhelming to imagine an even larger view, to imagine each home teeming with life in the cracks, in the gaps. "Go up into the gaps" (PTC, 274) Dillard writes, and though in the context she is speaking of spirits, quoting from Ezekial, the application to minutiae works. Dillard's books encourage readers to "stalk the gaps" (PTC, 274), to look within each small space and to "turn and unlock — more than a maple — a universe" (PTC, 274).
At times the life in these small spaces and previously hidden places will shock and scare. Dillard writes about frogs deflating like balloons, about parasites breeding on and destroying their hosts, about eggs multiplying, about amoebas crawling. While the particular situations change, her expressions stay the same. Writing with overwhelming wonder, with great beauty and determination, Dillard uses the jargon of a scientist but adds in the mystery and astonishment of a folklorist. "If I can't see these minutiae," she writes, "I still try to keep my eyes open. I'm always on the lookout for antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves. These things are utterly common, and I've not seen one" (PTC, 19). Dillard's intention is not to view only the gross and fearsome things in life, but to simply view life — all that it has to offer. She makes no distinction in tone between the squeamish, strange sights — larvae, amoebas — and the green ray in the sunset. Even the strange and gross is beautiful and must be understood, for it is part of the world and was made by God. "Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest" (PTC, 275), Dillard writes at the end of her book, speaking of the serious task we have ahead: to force ourselves to interact with the place in which we were set down, for "there is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see" (PTC, 275).
In An American Childhood too, Dillard recounts her childhood fascination with the small terrors happening everyday within her classroom and outside. She remembers catching beetles at the country club, insects in Lake Erie, moths at home and at school. "There was a terror connected with moths that attracted and repelled me. I would face down the terror" (AC, 162). Spoken of as a challenge, a determined effort to confront a fear, Dillard's relationship with bugs was promoted by books. After reading Gene Stratton Porter's Moths of the Limberlost she became worried and confused. "[Porter] worked up a whole memorable childhood out of insects, of all things, which I had never noticed, and my childhood was half over" (AC, 162). It was important to Dillard even at a young age to view everything available in the world, to become intimately acquainted with all of the earth. She did not catch insects because of a great love for them. "I hated insects; that was the fact," (AC, 164) she writes, but she still perfected her collection methods, learned about the anatomy of the butterfly and the habits of a moth. By embracing even those things that scared or disgusted her, Dillard truly accepted life, coming to terms with the fact that this messy existence cannot be retouched or covered up. Rather than ignoring the truth, seeing — even when it is scary, even when it disgusts — is better. As Dillard quotes, "'In nature,' wrote Huston Smith, 'the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be'" (PTC, 241).
Just as the earth is characterized by chaos and fright, writing is equally messy and unchangeable, Dillard notes in The Writing Life. Though we may have visions of how we wished the world looked — without bugs or parasites, without crime or hate — the earth will stay the same, continuing on as it wishes. Even if we compose a writing plan or strive to achieve a particular vision in a text, our goals can never be truly replicated on the page. The writing is wild; it will do what it wishes. Dillard writes, "You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins" (WL, 57). Life will always win too, as it truly and accurately exists, covered in mud and bugs and blood. Ignoring those things will not change the truth, just like hoping for a particular outcome in a piece of writing will not change the product itself.
Amidst jobs and confusion and lust, the natural world continues on through gore and leaching. Our daily stresses may distract us from the horrors and beauty happening within the dirt, within the skin, but our distraction doesn't change the truth. "The female lays a single fertilized egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides" (PTC, 169). Dillard describes a world dependent on so many coincidences, continuing on merely by chance. The goldfish eats her eggs; "the parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host's body with identical hunger" (PTC, 169). In a world with so much brutality, where mothers put their children "out to die on the center divider of Interstate 5 some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit" (WA, 13), it is a shock to hear of identical viciousness, identical craze, occurring on a subhuman level, in the trees and oceans we romanticize and envision.
John Ruskin, one of Dillard's main inspirations, also uses symbolical grotesques to shock, to portray a world more complicated than his readers had considered. In Unto this Last he writes of a man who died in a California shipwreck. "Lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking — had he the gold? Or had the gold him?" (Ruskin, 261). Like Dillard here, Ruskin uses a grotesque example to question popular notions of possession. In the same way, Dillard wonders, do we have the world? Or does the world have us?
Are you there God? It's me, Annie
By questioning the purpose of life and the goodness of the earth, Dillard takes cruelty down to a minute level, to its elemental pieces, describing an earth that not only teems with vulgarity, but that is in fact dependent for its survival on such horror. Indeed, this is distressing. Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which at times assumes the structure and tone of a personal struggle, questions the nature of this God and the condition of existing.
We are people; we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you've done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste! Can it possibly, ludicrously be for this that on this unconscious planet with my innocent kind I play softball all spring, to develop my throwing arm? How high, how far, could I heave a little shred of frog shoulder at the Lord? How high, how far, ho long until I die? [PTC, 269]
This passionate appeal, characterized by emphatic italicization, makes no attempt to hide its suffering. Dillard is a proponent of life, a representative of not only humanity, but of all living creatures. She recognizes her own right as a human to ask difficult questions, to seek answers in a distressing puzzle of pain and cruelty. Her longing to know, to find some sense of validation or meaning in the otherwise tricky and confusing world is brought down to one small point in the above passage: she is a person. And as a person she is permitted, required even, to have dealings with the creator, to protect and serve the rest of creation too. Dillard's attention to the small, strange creatures around her, she notes in An American Childhood, always separated her from the rest of her friends. "People's nervous systems edited out the sight of insects before it reached their brains; my seeing insects let me live alongside human society in a different sensory world, just as insects themselves do" (AC, 164). Having experienced a parallel to the insects' condition, Dillard describes herself as the perfect representative of creation. Truly seeing, however, should not be limited to one, to the sole representative. As members of creation, everyone should experience the same passion, the same distress and injustice, at the truth of the world. It is not that Dillard is truly angry with God, just that she desires some answer, some feedback, because she refuses to remain idle and merely accept. Life, she insists again and again, should not be an idle, monotonous condition, but a series of steps, a long ladder on the way to awakening, where awakening is not only becoming aware of your own identity but of the world around you.
Life, too, should not be rushed, but should be dwellt upon. This sentiment Dillard describes as a journey and a process, where life is cooperative. "I thought a great deal about the Panama Canal," she writes, "and always contemplated the same notion: You could take more time, and do it with teaspoons" (AC, 170). Removing the dirt with "a good many silver spoons" (AC, 170) would necessitate reflection — pacing — and would allow for each small piece of dirt to be examined, each strange inconsistency to be studied. The process, too, would allow for bonding and for a long and extended project. "I saw myself and a few Indian and Caribbean co-workers wielding teaspoons from our kitchen: Towle, Rambling Rose. And our grandchildren, and their grandchildren" (AC, 170). As a metaphor for the project of seeing, this analogy is particular poignant; is the journey ever over? Can the earth ever be understood or seen in its entirety? Instead, the project persists even as the particular people move on; the endeavor of life, to see and be shocked, continues, and God can always be questioned and grappled with, for the world is not meant to be inherited and merely ignored, but truly seized.
This sensation of living, where shock is a regular occurrence and each breath should be savored, is similar to the process of writing, Dillard attests. "The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of rearing and peering from the bent tip of a grassblade, looking for a route" (WL, 74). Dillard's overwhelming skill, which can apply obscure philosophical concepts to the concrete scientific world, is repeatedly used to justify writing as well. Setting the experience of living down in words is Dillard's way to cope with cruelty, to ask questions of the creator. Writing, Dillard explains, should not be rushed, just as life should be paced and enjoyed along the way.
Gathering Elements, Connecting Humanity
With so much to learn, each bit of knowledge gained throughout life can connect humanity, as intricacy and obsessions interact. Dillard describes the meeting of all sorts of enthusiasts — "fanatics who shared a vocabulary, a batch of technical skills and equipment, and, perhaps, a vision of some single slice of the beauty and mystery of things, of their complexity, fascination, and unexpectedness" (AC, 159). Each group of people is connected by their respect for a collection of small, minute details, whether it be the surprise gems inside the plainest looking rocks or the flowing veins of a goldfish's tail. Dillard reflects:
Everything in the world, every baby, city, tetanus shot, tennis ball, and pebble, was an outcrop of some vast and hitherto concealed vein of knowledge, apparently, that had compelled people's emotions and engaged their minds in the minutest detail without anyone's having done with it. [AC, 159]
Communities of knowledge hold humanity together, with each small piece of the world claimed by a new group and magnified into life's meaning.
Dillard's endeavor — setting minutiae and inconsistencies down in print, seeing the truth and questioning its meaning — is ultimately characterized by collection, by gathering. Each small scenario has meaning of its own, and Dillard collects these unique and bizarre visions, these gorgeous and grotesque examples of creation, to give power to this combination of minutiae. Like John McPhee and Bruce Chatwin, who write about other books within their own and collect the stories of others to craft one large tale, Dillard sorts and collects. Yet she is not as much concerned with other people's stories, as with other creature's stories — other experiences. As a member of the living community, Dillard insists on her authority to pick apart larger things — to illuminate the small.
I like the slants of light; I'm a collector. That's a good one, I say, that bit of bank there, the snakeskin and the aquarium, that patch of light from the creek on bark. Sometimes I spread my fingers into a viewfinder, more often I peek through a tiny square or rectangle — a frame of shadow — formed by the tips of index fingers and thumbs held directly before my eye. [PTC, 84]
Using the language of the camera, Dillard likens her endeavor to a filmmaker's — zooming in to the compact, isolating the outside. Yet instead of just focusing on one small piece and ignoring its relation to others, Dillard's books take small stories and small examples and fit them together, exploring what the world is really made of. As a collector, as a lens, and as a protector for all life, Dillard remains brave throughout all of her journeys — her trip into the natural world outside her home, her childhood adventures, and the process of writing. She is unafraid — to go into the gaps, to seek out the vulgar, to admire the world, and to put it all into print.
Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001.
Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Johnson, Samuel. "Adventurer, 108." The Victorian Web. 19 December 2007
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from his Writings. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1998.
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 20 December 2007