Book Review: Teaching a Stone to Talk

Reverence. This is the word that best describes the tone of Annie Dillard’s collection of 14 essays spanning 173 pages in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.  In the author’s note, she refers to these as her real work.  The clarity of her approach to her subjects appeals to the side of me that enjoys comparative cosmology, biology, nature, psychology, art, anything that gives me a sense of connection to the eternal.  This is my monastic, contemplative side, the part of me which ventures out into a wilderness area alone every few years for a couple days of silence to reboot and right-set.  The tenderness and humility of her writing appeals to the side of me that likes to imagine bright halos around everyone – loved ones, the frightened, the smartest guy in the room, the seemingly odd or cantankerous, the homeless man in the wheelchair outside the post office.  I read this to wind down in the evenings, so I relished travels to the Galapagos, the Ecuadorian jungle, at the North Pole, and the Washington coast.
The opener, Total Eclipse, was a startling and intense hook.  She recounts the journey to and experience of being on a hillside along the highway in the Yakima Valley with her husband and others gathered to witness a solar eclipse.   As things turned gray, she transported me in time to the Middle Ages on the Euphrates River.  I was back there and thinking that life on Earth was about to be over.  I was on the ride with her from feeling sane to terrified to torn open to acceptance and then to relief. Conversations with other observers in a restaurant made up part of the processing of what they’d all just experienced.  This piece was a contemplation on the mind, body, and life – on the puzzle of our physical nature.  We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, insensible waters we never mention or recall.  Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add – until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form people can use.
In God in the Doorway, a sweet 3 pages, she recounts her fear of Santa Claus (actually a rigged-up Miss White who lived across the street), thinking he was God.  She is still sorry that she ran from Miss White, Santa Claus, and acknowledges that she is still on the run from that love from which there is no refuge.
Teaching a Stone to Talk opens with  The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself. In a cedar-shake  shack on a cliff-we we all live like this – is a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk.  This piece spoke to me about spirit or conscious force in matter and moved me to revisit my highlighted pages of Australian environmental philosopher and author Freya Mathews‘ Re-inhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture.  Mathews wrote about the affectionate trust and engagement with the given, the everyday being rendered numinously spiritual, and the spiritual unpretentiously everyday. (48)…We get the most out of life by awakening to the world, to its vastness, its beauty, it endless communicativeness.  The life of the individual is not so much narrative in structure as it is poetic:  it is not a tale with the beginning and the end but rather constituted through ‘address’. (68).
Dillard closes the essay beautifully:  I would like to come back as a ‘palo santo’ tree on the weather side of the island, so that I could be, myself, a perfect witness, and look, mute, and wave my arms…The silence is all there is.  It is the alpha and the omega.  It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings.  You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.”  Distinctions blur. Quit your tents.  Pray without ceasing.
Some years earlier I enjoyed Dillard’s nonfiction narrative, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her memoir, An American Childhood, and fiction, The Maytrees… and now this gem, which I found on a Little Library shelf in a local yoga center. I am hungry for more.  Her website is a great primer of her works [Ref.].  Reviewer Edward Abbey said she has a distinctive passion and intensity, a sort of intellectual radiance reminiscent of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.  I think so, too.  Dillard conveys a sense of wonder akin to works like Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground [Ref.] or Arctic Dreams and Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of Love [Ref.] and Cultivating Delight: a natural history of my garden.  The self-proclaimed gregarious recluse does a great deal of walking;  these essays made me want to rise early to beat the Florida heat, or be okay with bearing it, to do the same.  Thank you, Annie.
Addendum 7/23/2016:  Check out NPR’s weekend edition recent interview with Annie [Ref.].  It is delightful.  In it she shares her take on the 1979 Total Eclipse stunner, It was about the eruption of the irrational into daily life…

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