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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 Club Award. 

"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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