ONE OF THE THINGS that sets Annie Dillard apart from lesser nature writers is the extraordinary energy she gets from her experience. One often thinks of nature's appeal as the promise of some ultimate storm's eye where the mind can drift and eddy, but exactly the opposite occurs when she confronts a landscape, populated or not. A kind of meditative adrenalin is evident in the 14 essays that comprise Teaching a Stone to Talk. There's no sense of Dillard moving further and further toward a contemplative core, eyeing the coastline at sunset until the alpha waves reach the shore. Nature, for her, is a fuel and there's a clear sensation of mental and perceptual propulsion in the thought and movement of her writing. While it's true, as the title suggests, that she applies a Romantic democracy to all the pieces of the solar system, the effect of her eagerness is to turn Wordsworth inside out: Annie Dillard's essays recollect tranquility with emotion, lyrically charged.
Perhaps it's inevitable that Dillard's nature gets her going, even agitated, for she senses in it not the slightest hint of repose. In fact she sees and imagines manic movement all around her, in the microscopic world of "Lenses" ("Occasionally a zippy rotifer comes barreling through, black and white, and in a tremendous hurry"), in the celestial world of suns ("The planet itself is a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung across nowhere" . . . "It occurs to me to try to step down from the porch, which is moving in orbit at 68,400 miles per hour. I plan to take huge, leaping steps into the air. It will be, I realize, a rare thrill, but unfortunately I cannot find a landing space that looks soft.") Where others seek in nature the escape of rhythmic stillness, she advises that we'd best keep a deft and nimble pace or it will surely run us over, honking and cursing as it passes.
What she sees, too, uniquely, eccentrically, poetically, are the finite dimensions of what the rest of us think limitless. "The earth, without form, is void," she writes and that ironic need for form in the heavens appears to serve, more thoroughly than anything else, as the informing point of vantage from which she watches and makes sense of the helter-skelter traffic. She tries to picture the precise curve of the back-drop drapery of the sky and she tries to imagine by what manner of beveled edge it so neatly fits its grooves at the edge of the land. "The Napo River . . . catching sunlight the way a cup catches poured water; it is a bowl of sweet air, a basin of greenness, and of grace, and, it would seem, of peace." And, of our zipping, hurtling solar system: "I have read . . . that (it) is careering through space toward a point east of Hercules . . . When we get 'there,' . . . will we slide down the universe's inside arc like mud slung at a wall?"
Equally and oppositely, she knows the infinite skills of tables and bowls and rocks, and here she's most allied with poetic tradition. She sees into the life of things. "Reports differ," she calmly writes of a neighbor's committed efforts to give his favorite stone the power of speech, "on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say. I do not think he expects the stone to speak as we do . . . I think instead that he is trying to teach it to say a single word, such as 'cup' or 'uncle.' " In any case, it is, she says, altogether "noble work, and beats, from any angle, selling shoes."
As, most surely, she convinces us it does, although I believe Annie Dillard could also locate, carefully observe and persuasively explain the holy mysteries of retailing. And this is both the ultimate charm and intelligence of her work--that instinctive willingness to look a second time, more closely; to give all about her the benefit of her keen and unskeptical mind. She sees all the elements of the world as in a cooperative battle, a harmonious war, and for her everything is a "thing" --"human life, tenderness, the glance of heaven," as just one of the many lists she likes to compose makes clear.
Also at work in these essays, as one might expect, is a strong sense of religion. She approaches that final bafflement with the same consistency of regard for both form and limitlessness. She speaks with affection for the notion of a literal, dogmatic, ritualized Catholicism--almost reminiscent of the way Flannery O'Connor wrote of hers--and yet, at the center of Dillard's curiosity is a far less orderly urge to reconcile how and why we (and her "we" is people, rotifers, the far left corner of the air) have all gathered here. I can imagine Annie Dillard's God walking briskly into the drawing room to address all his creations--a wildly random round-up of suspects, to be sure--and beginning with, "I suppose you wonder why I've asked you all here." Certainly, Dillard does.
Even in a collection almost uniformly splendid, I have favorites--"Living Like Weasels," "The Deer at Providencia," "Sojourner." Her art as an essayist is to move with the scrutinous eye through events and receptions that are random on their surfaces and to find, with grace and always-redeeming wit, the connections. Once in a great while she seems to me to strain--"An Expedition to the Pole" grew too abstract in its efforts to join the many elements she'd gathered up for it until it reached a gorgeous, thin level of pretentiousness. I like her work most when she keeps the parts of metaphor relatively few and simple--when she sees, in "The Deer of Providencia," the obvious and wholly elusive commonness among the struggles of a rope-bound deer, a badly burned man in Miami, and the insistent enduranceeof us all.
Most of all, I liked "Life on the Rocks: The Gal,apagos," which might have served as the concluding essay, for in it she describes the casual grouping of humans, sea lions, flies, finches, all of which commingle with apparent disregard for the notion of territorial imperative. She walks among them all. Sometimes they nuzzle her. Sometimes she lets them. Sometimes everybody moves aside for everybody else. It seems, finally, the essence of Annie Dillard's nature, as she measures with a yardstick the length of fleeting breezes and listens with respect for the stone's first word.y DOUGLAS BAUER is the author of Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home. He's at work on a novel titled Dexterity. "While it's true . . . that she applies a Romantic democracy to all the pieces of the solar system, the effect of her eagerness is to turn Wordsworth inside out: Annie Dillard's essays recollect tranquility with emotion, lyrically charged."