In 1975 I read a book. Nothing earth shattering there - I did (and still do) read every single day. But this book changed my life. Or, at least, my way of seeing the world around me. The book was written by Annie Dillard. Its title - "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek". It concerned the author's wanderings around and near a creek near her home in Virginia and what she saw there. I remember bringing a copy to my mother with the words "You have GOT to read this!". This book won the Pulitzer Prize fior non-fiction in 1975.
Near the beginning I read the following - "What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest? Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator's, once having called for the universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. Is this what we think happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears round the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey? “God is subtle,” Einstein said, “but not malicious.” Again, Einstein said that “nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning.” It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"
I was reminded of the Tennyson quote from "HMS Ulysses" that Alistair MacLean used - " 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars..."
Then, a little further on, I came across this little passage - "At the time of Lewis and Clark, setting the prairies on fire was a well-known signal that meant, “Come down to the water.” It was an extravagant gesture, but we can't do less. If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames."
By the end of the book my eyes were in flames as well. I have never looked at the world the same way since. And I am so greatful that I don't! One portion of the book reminded me very vividly of an experience I had in my back yard that was very similar to an experience Annie had with an orange osage tree. I was walking up to a lilac bush when about 50 little wrens burst into flight out of the bush. I walked closer and about 30 more bolted. The last 20 or so hit the air as I reached out to touch the bush. About a hundred birds were sitting in that bush and I never saw one of them until they took off!
Early in 1981 I heard on the radio that Annie Dillard was a professor of literature at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Wesleyan is located in Middletown and that is only about 40 miles or so from here. An idea popped into my head. I took a vacation day from work and set out for Middletown. Wesleyan was easy enough to find and I parked, walked ino the Administration Building an asked where Ms. Dillard's office was located. I walked to the office and knocked on the door Lucklily she was in! I walked in and said, "My boat sunk and I hate pinochle! But my eyes are open."
She laughed and asked me in and we chatted for awhile. Awile turned into the better part of an afternoon (including a walk over to the local Dunkin' Donuts for some coffee) and even a look at some of her manuscript on her next book. It was titled "Teaching A Stone To Talk". One of the passages in that book that I really enjoyed was this - "Now we are no longer primitive. Now the whole world seems not holy. We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism. It is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under an ever green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. And yet it could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the small, still voice, God's speaking from the whirlwind, nature's old song and dance, the show we drove from town. 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? What is the different between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?"
She told me that one of the essays was about a total eclipse of the sun that she and her husband witnessed near Yakima, Washington in 1979. She described it to me and her mention of the colors reminded me of watching the Northern Lights when I was on temporary duty in the Air Force in 1970 at Thule, Greenland. In "Total Eclipse" she manages to describe the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse in ways that are otherworldly and profoundly beautiful (and even slightly terrifying). In the title essay, she begins by describing "...a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk." From this, the essay expands into a commentary on cosmology and theology and the palos santos trees on the Galapagos Islands, and yet it all seems to be a natural progression. This is the way with all of her essays. Annie's writings feel like free association, like a perfect jazz solo, what seemed random and disconnected finds its way back home again as naturally as if it were scored.
I would highly recommend any of her books to you - "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek", "Teaching A Stone To Talk", "An American Childhood", "Holy The Firm", "Tickets For A Prayer Wheel" (poetry) and "The Maytrees" are all outstanding.
We talked some more and then I left. As I was heading out the door Annie said something to me that would knock me off my feet. But not until 1998. She was even kind enough to write it on an index card, at my request. To understand the significance of what she said you would have to be familiar with an online friend of mine and my beliefs.
As I walked to the door she said, "Stan?"
"When the psalm singer sings, will you be listening?"