Annie Dillard in present time: Thoughts on “The Abundance”

I started reading “The Abundance,” a compilation of some of Annie Dillard’s best, most badass, or as editor Geoff Dyer puts it, “genre-resistant” essays.

Overall, I like to write about traveling, so I find this work inspiring and stimulating so far. I appreciate Dillard’s tendency to sidetrack, to run away with something, and turn an observation on its head.

The first story is about Annie’s travels to Yakima, Washington to watch a total eclipse with her husband.

The first sentence that punched me in the gut was about how when we see something in nature so stupefyingly beautiful, we don’t know how to speak up for ourselves. It’s like those questions we get when we’re in the midst of kissing someone we’re beyond excited to kiss: what am I supposed to do with my hands? Oh yeah, and which way to Earth?

I remember driving through Sequoia National Park with Sean. Climbing and climbing and all those hairpin turns. The green valley sinking beneath the weight of mountains. Mountains shrouded in clouds. I shivered, taking them in. But I couldn’t for the life of me come up with a damn thing to say. I was practically drooling. A dog with her head out the window, overwhelmed by the blur of smell and sight. Dillard described this failing of words as something quite endearingly foolish. She also breaks down the “I could hardly breathe” cliché to illustrate the experience we have when we are overcome by awe.

“I watched the landscape innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out.”

It’s interesting that the beginning of the story starts out in a hotel, where Dillard is preparing herself for her adventure in the sky. She sees a creepy painting of a clown hanging on the wall in the hotel lobby. Only, the clown’s features are made up of vegetables.

“The crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley. Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers; between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of real tongue. The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.”

This is obviously not a usual way to depict a clown, which is perhaps why it sticks in her memory so clearly. We’ve seen them depicted the same way for so long; we don’t question the red nose, the frazzled, rainbow wig, the chalky face paint. What about a clown made of vegetables? Is funnier? Is it sadder? Is it a more pronounced distortion of meaning? It is those unruly and juxtaposed things in nature that stick with us, maybe even change us. It is up to us to describe the indescribable. This is what Dillard seems to say when we encounter something that is beyond the confines of language.

When Dillard actually sees the eclipse, she describes its alien-like appearance, its fleeting definition. She and a bunch of other observers who have gathered to watch don’t know how to take it. They scream. She screams. It’s terrifying because it doesn’t make sense to see the world in this way.

“From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. 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.”

It’s suddenly dark, like the sky closed a lid. It’s soundless and unsettling. Like there’s nothing, “no world at all.” It feels like death; like they’re all dead and floating, Dillard describes.

“Abruptly it was a dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. For the hole where the sun belongs is very small. Just a thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth tolled down.”

She grabs for a definition, but realizes that it isn’t within the common vocab of the human experience. Those especially who lack an understanding of astronomy, she says, will not be able to understand its magnitude in these more tangible terms. But then she goes on to point out scientific theory fallibility, which can’t account for all the sheer wonder found within a firsthand account, an unknowing eyewitness. You don’t have to know numbers and figures to experience the fullness of such a phenomenon. The knowledge you have may actually get in the way, or “blind you” to experiencing something in a new light. With any given experience we have to make sure that we ourselves don’t become eclipsed, she seems to say here.

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.”

I also just read “The Deer at Providencia,” which is about Dillard’s travels through the village of Providencia in Ecuador. This section focuses on one overarching image — a deer that has been captured and tied to a tree. It desperately tries to escape, cutting itself on the ropes. It’s a violent scene that made me want to stop reading.

“Its neck was no thicker than my wrist; it had been rubbed open on the rope, and gashed. Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves. The raw underside of its neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the skin. Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw.”

She watches the deer tire itself. It goes on for 15 minutes. During this time, Dillard’s unfazed expression at the flailing deer is also noted.

Dillard’s travel companions, who were all from big cities, were taken aback by her detachment of the scene of suffering they all witnessed.

She asks them, “Gentleman of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know of it?”

One man explains, “If it had been my wife … she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another. She couldn’t bear to see a creature in agony like that.”

Later when Dillard arrives home, she looks in her mirror. Taped to the corner of her mirror, is a newspaper clipping of a severely burned man, someone who had experienced devastating burn not for the first, but for the second time in his life. Every day, the clipping explains, he lies awake in pain wanting to die. Dillard reads this same story every day so she knows that pain like his exists.

“I read the whole clipping again every morning. This is the Big Time here, every minute of it. Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Providencia in his dignity, what is going on? And copy me on it.”

It’s an interesting take on suffering that I think a lot of people disagree with. Is it enough to know? Is it enough to read the newspaper? Shouldn’t we alleviate? Many of us would argue, yes. A lot of us (especially women, as the city gentleman seems to hint) would go running toward the deer or at least squirm in anguish at the sight of something so horrific and sad.

But I think Dillard makes an interesting statement that not a lot of us can accept for some reason or the other. Suffering happens, and the majority of it goes on with our input or non-input. She seems to say no being (animal or non-animal) has more or less dignity than the next, but also seems to remind us that their suffering is a part of nature. That there is no full-proof explanation for why one suffers and why one does not.

The world is never entirely cured of some things. This is the way it functions. Mothers suffer from autoimmune diseases. People are burned in accidents. Deer die in sad ways. Etc. This is a difficult concept to face. Dillard argues that we need to face it, be present, and understand it the best we can.

What I like most about Dillard’s travel log style, is her presentness, and that she does not have a “conqueror” complex. She does not demand something of her environment. She lets it speak to her and through her. With both stories I’ve read so far, from her point of view, it is not in her interest to control the experience while she is experiencing it. Rather, she is there to simply experience and see where her presentness of the moment carries her later on the page. When there is a gap in memory or capability she injects her own special brand of wildness. These are the parts of her stories where the bottom suddenly drops out, where everything seems the same, yet inverted.

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