For an epoch defined by mass attention-deficit disorder, Annie Dillard would seem to be the perfect antidote. Dillard, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), is devoted to patience and to presence. “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open,” she has declared. She is thoroughly and ecstatically attuned to her surroundings, willing to wait hours for a glimpse of a muskrat. Her words are painstakingly selected and arranged. The contrasts with our screen-tethered, logorrheic selves hardly need to be belabored.
A chapter in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), called “Living Like Weasels,” is characteristic of her approach. At a pond near her home in Virginia, Dillard finds herself face to face with a wild weasel. “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.” Such descriptive sentences—as sinewy and vigorous as that weasel—are interspersed with whimsical anecdotes (sometimes seemingly apocryphal). Once, she reports, a man shot an eagle and, examining its carcass, “found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to the bird’s throat.” The assumption, she writes, is that “the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.” Then, every so often, she slips in a more philosophical musing: “The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons.”
Dillard hasn’t written a book since the appearance of her novel The Maytrees in 2007, but now she has curated a new compilation, The Abundance, which includes the weasel essay. Though subtitled Narrative Essays Old and New, the most recent contribution (and apparently the only one not previously published in book form) is a 2002 essay from the literary journal Image. The Abundance is really a kind of greatest-hits collection culled from Dillard’s most famous books: excerpts from Pilgrim and Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood (1987), and The Writing Life (1989), among others. The pieces range from a brief, powerful account of a total solar eclipse to a long, somewhat cryptic essay that seems to compare attending church with visiting the Arctic. Cynically, the book could be seen as an attempt on the publisher’s part to squeeze some sales out of Dillard’s literary reputation. But it could also be read more generously: as a welcome occasion to discern the themes common to her work over time and to take stock of her legacy.
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Annie Dillard (née Doak) was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, then a thriving steel town ruled by a WASP elite to which her family belonged. She was the eldest of three girls, and her parents, for whom she demonstrates great affection in her childhood memoir, were wholesome bon vivants; they liked to tell elaborate jokes and throw parties where the entertainment consisted of bringing out a one-man percussion band. Hers was a world in which people knew and cared whether you were Protestant or Catholic, Italian or Irish. The neighborhood belonged to the children. “My mother had given me the freedom of the streets as soon as I could say our telephone number,” Dillard writes in An American Childhood.