Dillard’s Truth about Nature

Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters is Annie Dillard’s book of reflections that tease out meaning in life and the natural world. The book is composed of a series of lyrical essays about places the author has been and what meaning she has constructed out of her experiences and the experiences of others who have traveled there before her. In much of the book, Dillard contemplates the workings of God, the universe and the purpose and direction of life.
Dillard begins with a description of a total eclipse in Yakima Valley in Washington where she finds the vision terrifying and apocalyptic. “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 rolled down.” She describes the screams that follow the eclipse and adds a story about a man who died of fright from the sight of solar eclipse. This essay is the first of thirteen essays that expose Dillard’s interest in the mystery and fragility of life.
“An Expedition to the Pole” is the longest chapter and the crux of the book. Here she details the first polar expeditions that were set out for the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. The chapter alternates between three main parts: The Land, which gives the history of the Polar explorers and the description of her own expedition to the Pole; The People, which describes the rituals of her Catholic church; and The Technology, which includes the facts about what science and knowledge was available to the explorers. It also contemplates how people use what they have whether it be in the material, mental or the spiritual realm. At the end of the chapter, Dillard imaginatively moves herself and the people of the church to the Polar landscape in a wild scene that acts as a metaphor for how church goers seek the same thing that the Polar explorers were seeking: something pure and inaccessible. It is here that Dillard describes the purpose for all her own expeditions. “It is for the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility I am searching, and have been searching, in the mountains and along the seacoasts for years.”
She considers the planet “a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung across nowhere.” Twice in the book she recalls reading that “our solar system as a whole is careering through space toward a point east of Hercules.” She compares this idea to humanity being cast out with no clear destination, like Adam and Eve from Eden. This idea rings through in the title chapter, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” She tells the story of a man who is trying to make his pet rock speak. She concludes that his experiment exemplifies the human desire to hear the voice of God, and assuage our fear of being alone with our own thoughts and without direction or clear destination. She asks, “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us?” She decides to quit hiding, “pray without ceasing,” and resolves that “silence is all there is.”
Dillard’s use of language and her gift for pulling seeming random thoughts into the metaphors of her storyline makes it strong. She expertly blends facts into her narrative and reflections and deftly compares two or three things at once to provide layers of metaphor. Dillard’s lyrical descriptions are done with a series of short declarative sentences that roll into longer ones to add breath. There are often multiple comparisons made of an object or a place as if she is turning it around in her mind and describing it from different vantage points. After her experience seeing the eclipse, she goes to a restaurant that becomes “a halfway house, a decompression chamber.” She expresses her thoughts as if they rush through her mind and transform into images. The pattern of her writing makes her descriptions immediate, sharp and individual.
In this book, the reader is pushed to think about everything differently. The air, water, trees, animals and insects in Dillard’s essays become characters of their own. The reader goes along with Dillard to contemplate their activity and function in the world.

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