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A blog for everything bookish

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Teaching a Stone to Talk (Expeditions and Encounters) by Annie Dillard


I’ve come to Annie Dillard late, I think. Being as she’s a Pullitzer Prize winner and all. Having come to her late, however, perhaps I appreciate her more? One thing’s for certain, after reading this short work I instantly went out and bought another three of Dillard’s works. As good an endorsement as any reader can give, I think. 

Teaching a Stone to Talk is a series of essays centred around the concept of encounters. It begins with Dillard’s encounter with a solar eclipse, something I can relate to having attended the solar eclipse that occurred over Cornwall and Devon in 1999. At the time I was pregnant with my first child, the son that will go on to eclipse me many times (and not just in height, though we are there already) and we combined the trip with a visit to my mother-in-law who lives in Brixham and picked out a good spot for us to view though didn’t, in the end, bother to view herself. Attending an eclipse is an encounter I can relate to, but what I didn’t expect was how fresh and vivid, how interesting a perspective Dillard, a great writer, could lend to the experience. Considering over fourteen years have elapsed since I experienced the eclipse, her prose and perspective brought it very much back to life for me.

It is the quality, the clarity and surety of Dillard’s writing which shines through in this book, the uniqueness of her perspective and keen observational skills, not just of events but of the vagaries of human nature and behaviour. In the second essay, An Expedition to the Pole, Dillard juxtaposes her visits to Catholic Mass against the experience of a polar expedition, and somehow this interspersal works in a way that I simply couldn’t have imagined (and I am not often accused of lack of imagination, though in this instance it may be an accurate accusation).

Though the course of the essays Dillard explores the Arctic, the Galapagos islands, the jungle, a field, Tinker Creek (which may be a familiar place to Dillard readers, a place she explores often and in great depth), the nature of mirages, mangrove swaps, a visit to a cabin in the woods with her daughter, an encounter with Santa Claus. Running through all these tales is a kind of meditative peace, an exploration of the world conducted largely without judgement but with a questing, open-mindedness of the kind I wished I had. These tales are not just encounters with the physical but with the spiritual, with the abstract, with ideas. Like here, from the essay In the Jungle:

“The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place. We might as well get a feel for the fringes and hollows in which life is lived, for the Amazon basin which covers half a continent, and for the life that – there, like anywhere else – is always and necessarily lived in detail: on tributaries, in the riverside villages, sucking this particular white-fleshed guava in this particular pattern of shade.”

Each short essay was a distinct pleasure to read, a soothing moment in the travails of the day and I felt calmer and more peaceable for having read them. It also gave me more of an appreciation for what is around me, the glorious diversity of life and the way it is lived. Not many books do that for me, which is perhaps why I found myself wanting to read much more of it. Anything that makes us see the world around us as something beautiful, wondrous, that posits differences as something interesting to be explored as opposed to a threat or something to fear of be destroyed, well there should be more of it. I hope Dillard writes more and more and more.

Teaching a Stone to Talk receives a rarified 10 out of 10 Biis.