Teaching a Stone to Talk


In college I used to read Annie Dillard and think she was the queen of words and of nature (especially as she combined the two)--and that she was sort of a Pippi Longstocking in vigor, but a Gene Stratton Porter in lifestyle and livelihood. (Porter, author of Girl of the Limberlost, was a naturalist from Indiana, and was especially devoted to studying butterflies and moths). Dillard's collection of essays and stories in Teaching a Stone to Talk reminded me of the afternoons and hours I spent as a younger woman, hoping to one day be a writer. I don't think the dream has faded, but I'm not the person I was six years ago; I read Dillard differently now. This week, I allowed myself to skim. I let the words flow at me, picking at phrases more like they were flowers floating down a river. Perhaps needless to say, I did not catch all of them.  

In "Living Like Weasels," I find myself laughing again at Dillard's propensity to make me aware of awareness. Also her ability to confuse me. Regardless, her aim is to look, to see, to discover. Her aim is to draw attention to everything we often pass by. 

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--shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?--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, as the weasel lives at he 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. (68-9). 

I finished last week's book, The Sea, on Wednesday, which left me very little time to read this week's selection. Teaching a Stone to Talk comes in at 170 pages; I needed a quicker read. Moreover, I was aiming for a book that might help me reflect upon my last weekend's camping trip to Alabama, where I stayed at a campground on Brushy Lake, in the Bankhead National Forest, and quickly felt like time didn't quite seem real. Mornings came early, I awoke to birdsong; afternoons arrived warm, ducks and geese called from the lake and warm breezes moved through the sweetgum and loblolly pine trees in an attitude redolent of summer, not spring. It was almost ninety degrees; it could have been July. And on Easter morning, I walked on a path along a river, catching the scent of wild azaleas, and grass, and wood dust rising off of winter's leaves. I'm not joking. It felt like a timeless Eden. And I didn't want to lose it by reading a book that went off to Germany, Russia or the Bahamas, fetching some story of lust or murder or war. I wanted nature again. 

Hence, Dillard. 

To be fair, she has a few essays that stray from the continental United States. While the book's opening essay, "Total Eclipse," recalls an experience in the Pacific Northwest, her second essay, "An Expedition to the Pole," moves back and forth between a church pew (in who knows where), to Antarctica. I didn't want the cold. Honestly, my friends: I skipped some parts. 

Then there is "In the Jungle" and "Deer at Providencia," which recall trips to Ecuador. "Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos," well, that's self-explanatory. 

Fact of it is, Dillard's not a lazy writer, and if you want a true taste of her gemstone writing, you have to be patient, you have to really focusShe expects that of you. And that's good. More writers should push their readers to looking harder and reading closer and paying better attention. Too much goodness passes us--passes me--by. I need to slow down, I need to learn to see. 

But. Let me end on an inspiring note. Back to the weasel. The animal with the incredible grip, with the jaw that snaps hard and tight onto prey or predator and will not, even to death, let go. Dillard knows what we can learn from the weasel. 

We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--even of silence--by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. (70)

Oh, friends. Find this book and read a few sections. Latch onto something that makes you stop and think, retrace your eye-steps and reread the words that make you see something differently. Dillard is so right in so many ways. Sometimes, she's a little hard to handle. But it's worth it. So worth it. 

keep reading.

Next week's book: Niall Williams, As It Is in Heaven