A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Living Like Weasels

I came across the name Annie Dillard some time ago but had never read anything by her until now. I'm deep into her dazzling collection of essays Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1982, published as a HarperPerennial paperback in 1993). It's richly rewarding. She writes about her (our) ambiguous, complex yet palpably real relationship with the natural world and with the divine. I'll be eagerly tracking down 2 more of her books as soon as I can - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and The Writing Life. Here's an extract from a short but brilliant piece in Teaching a Stone to Talk entitled Living like Weasels: Weasel! I had never seen one wild before. He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert. His face was fierce, small and pointed as a lizard's; he would have made a good arrowhead. There was just a dot of chin, maybe two brown hairs' worth, and then the pure white fur began that spread down his underside. He had two black eyes I did not see, any more than you see a window. The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild-rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness, twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key. After a few more paragraphs ratcheting up her weasel encounter, Dillard continues: 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 as 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. Notice how she repeats the adjectives "fierce" and "pointed" at the end, echoing the beginning, reinforcing her identification with the weasel. This is quality writing of the very highest order.


John Hee said...

very Walden from the snippet?

The Solitary Walker said...

Indeed - she was very much influenced by this. She's quite a "tough" writer about the natural world - no sentimentality or veggie nonsense, no proselytizing -which appeals to me... She looks for "dignity" and "passion" in human beings, and believes our role is bear witness to the wonder of creation, even if nature is ultimately inexplicable and only speaks to us with a mysterious and silent voice... Her stuff can also be quite witty and even sarcastic at times (eg towards the church) which I like - but at the same time she can be poignant and poetic. A really terrific writer - but not easy, and some of her essays need several readings.