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It’s nature writing, Jim, but not as we know it: Rebecca Priestley reviews Annie Dillard

Geoff Dyer loves Annie Dillard so that should be a recommendation but actually isn’t she just kind of like totally weird? Rebecca Priestley reviews the US personal essayist.

 What does it feel like to be alive? What would you do if you had fifteen minutes to live before the bomb went off? Quick: What would you read? What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? Is anyone running this show?

These are some of the questions that Annie Dillard asks – and sometimes answers – in her new collection of “genre-resistant non-fiction” The Abundance.

Mostly, the pieces in this book fall somewhere between personal essay and nature writing. The nature-focused titles include “Total Eclipse”, “The Weasel” and “The Deer at Providencia.” There are three excerpts from her Pulitzer Prize winning Walden-esque book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Other pieces – “Jokes”, “Being Chased”, and “Disneyland” – explore Dillard’s parents’ sense of humour, childhood games, and a trip to Disneyland with a group of Chinese writers.

But if some of it is nature writing, it’s not as I’ve read it before. In his introduction to the book, Geoff Dyer (whose work I know and love) describes Dillard – who I’d not read before – with words such as “comic,” “a fruitcake,” and even “really bonkers”. Her abiding concerns, he goes on, have been “Waking up … remaining wide awake, leading ‘a life of concentration’ rather than sleep-wading through life.”

In “Total Eclipse”, in which she describes watching a lunar eclipse from a crowded hill in wintry Washington State, Dillard describes “a piece of sky” detaching and moving itself over the sun. “It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began. All at once this disk of sky snapped over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.”

In “Paganism”, a spider in Dillard’s bathroom, with whom she keeps “a sort of company,” sustains herself via her “six-inch mess of a web”. The corpses below the web “appear to be mostly sow bugs, those little armadillo creatures who live to travel flat out in houses, and die round. There is also a new shred of earwig, three old spider skins crinkled and clenched, and two moth bodies, wingless and empty, moth bodies I drop to my knees to see.”

Along with this close observation of the world around her are meditations and musings on nature, the human spirit, consciousness. There’s a bit of religion in there. An exploration of the writer’s life.

I was pleased to find a piece with the title “Expedition to the Pole”, but Dillard’s insistence (articulated twice) that Scott and his polar party died on the Antarctic Peninsula, when they actually died in a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf thousands of kilometres away, is annoying especially as it’s in a piece first published in 1982. Did no one point out it was wrong? Or did Dillard just not care?

Maybe I care too much about facts. “I am not a scientist,” writes Dillard. “I explore the neighbourhood”. This book is beautifully written, and weirdly original, but I found the balance of musings to facts and observations unsatisfying: I wanted to know more new stuff by the time I finished it. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to learn to see the stuff you already know – to explore your own neighbourhood – in a different light and from a different headspace.

Or perhaps I’m just sleep-deprived. Dillard, says Dyer, “can only be enjoyed by a wide-awake reader”.


The Abundance (Allen & Unwin, $39.99) by Annie Dillard is available at Unity Books.

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