I seem to be on an essay kick of late. And nature writing. Someone asked me recently if I’d read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’ve read some short fiction by Annie Dillard, but not that book, though it’s been on my radar as something I’d like to read for some time. So when I saw it on the shelf at the library while I was perusing the nature books for Bella, I grabbed it. I’ve only read the first chapter, which also seems par for the course these days, I’ve not been finishing my nonfiction books, just dipping and dabbling and then taking them back to the library frustratingly unfinished.
As I read I’m falling in love with Dillard’s lush poetry. Her descriptions are vivid, startling, and magical. I’m not as in love with the philosophizing she does in between and it occurred to me that a decade or two ago it would have been just the opposite; younger me would have been skimming the descriptions to get to the meaty thoughtful stuff.
Perhaps its because I’m doing more in that vein myself, dabbling at nature writing, pouring my heart out in thoughtful pieces, that I’m seeing these things from a different perspective.
Nonetheless, I think Dillard is at her best when she follows her dictum: “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.” I’m in it for the description. And here are a handful of my favorites, just to show you what I mean.
First, some sharks.
Another time I saw another wonder: sharks off the Atlantic coast of Florida. There is a way a wave rises above the ocean horizon, a triangular wedge against the sky. If you stand where the ocean breaks on a shallow beach, you see the raised water in a wave is translucent, shot with lights. One late afternoon at low tide a hundred big sharks passed the beach near the mouth of a tidal river in a feeding frenzy. As each green wave rose from the churning water, it illuminated within itself the six- or eight-foot-long bodies of twisting sharks. The sharks disappeared as each wave rolled toward me; then a new wave would swell above the horizon, containing in it, like scorpions in amber, sharks that roiled and heaved. The sight held awesome wonders: power and beauty, grace tangled in a rapture with violence.
I am in awe of how this paragraph sings. It’s really a prose poem, a vignette perfectly self contained. I can see this scene more clearly than any photograph. I love the strong sound of “As each green wave rose” that line should be in a poem. And the image of the sharks as scorpions in amber.
Dillard is a great observer of light both in the shark passage and in this next one, where she gives us not so much a landscape as a lightscape, a series of impressions, like photographs, of the way the sunlight hits the world and shifts and changes as a storm rolls through.
At four-thirty the sky in the east is clear: how could that big blackness be blown? Fifteen minutes later another darkness is coming overhead from the northeast; and it’s here. Everything is drained of its light as if sucked. Only at the horizon do inky black mountains give way to distant, lighted mountains– lighted not by direct illumination but rather paled by glowing sheets of mist hung before them. Now the blackness is in the east; everything is half in shadow, half in sun, every clod, tree, mountain, and hedge. I can’t see Tinker Mountain through the line of hemlock, till it comes on like a streetlight, ping ex nihilo. Its sandstone cliffs pink and swell. Suddenly the light goes; the cliffs recede as if pushed. The sun hits a clump of sycamores between me and the mountains; the sycamore arms light up, and I can’t see the cliffs. They’re gone. The pale network of sycamore arms, which a second ago was transparent as a screen, is suddenly opaque, glowing with light. Now the sycamore arms snuff out, the mountains come on, and there are the cliffs again.
I wanted to include her passage about the frog and the giant water bug, but it was too much to transcribe, several long paragraphs. But there again is the keen observer’s eye and the curiosity of the amateur naturalist as well as the poet’s ability with words.
I said I was more keen on the observation than on the philosophizing, but this final passage did catch my eye. It feel very akin to Gerard Manly Hopkins. And I think it directly bears on the attitude that underlies her keen observations of the natural world and how it is that she paints them with words:
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, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. 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