When I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek nearly five years ago, I was struck by how Annie Dillard wrote about the natural world with such a powerful voice, seeing creeks as if they held the secret to life. Her trademark has always been a wonder at the natural world that catches you up in “seeing with a sense of urgency, as if when you blink the entire elaborate picture will have vanished” (Read my review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Teaching a Stone to Talk is a book that doesn’t change her core focuses, yet feels incredibly different from Pilgrim. Read on for more:
While Pilgrim was filled with an almost yin-yang sense of nature in all its wonder and terror, Teaching a Stone to Talk is more concerned with humanity: with feeling, with loving, with growing old. Nature is here, but it’s nearly a backdrop to Dillard’s thoughts on humanity. What possesses us to load ships up with supplies and seek out the North Pole? Why are we so different from weasels, who burrow in the ground, living wild and not hoarding anything they don’t need to stay alive? Nature is the foil here, the counterpoint to our fickle humanity.
Teaching a Stone to Talk is a collection of fourteen essays that are held together on this broad theme. Though I’m not usually choosey about editions, in this case the version you pick may actually make a difference. Having read the newer, re-ordered version of this book, I have to say the first edition seems to make a lot more sense. Three essays have been shifted around and the opening of the book is odd, starting as it does with the climactic “Total Eclipse.”
This essay, telling of Dillard’s pilgrimage to the mountains of Washington in order to observe a total eclipse, is harsh and gripping. Rather than reflecting on humanity, Dillard is caught up in the horror of the sky going dark, a literal shadow engulfing the eclipse-watchers, and how quickly everything returns to normal. The problem is, this essay is much better served in the middle, after we’ve heard about humanity’s utter ridiculousness in ‘An Expedition to the Pole’ and ‘In the Jungle.’ It makes for a good transition to the reflections of ‘Lenses,’ ‘Sojourner’ and ‘Aces and Eights.’ But aside from this nitpick, the book is excellent.
As I wrote above, this book feels so different from Pilgrim. Pilgrim is a largely solitary affair: Annie Dillard and her beloved Tinker Creek, general pondering on the beauty and horror to be found in nature. Teaching a Stone to Talk is different, more humanistic and willing to laugh at humanity’s ridiculousness. At the same time, the book is deeply contemplative, spending a great deal of time on Annie Dillard’s daughter (in ‘Aces and Eights,’ the conclusion of the book and the longest essay by far), Annie’s own childhood, and the passing of time leading to death.
Teaching a Stone to Talk is a somber shade pulled over Dillard’s philosophy, and it’s interesting to chart the evolution from Pilgrim to this book. Humanity is under a microscope, and as it turns out, we are very small. We watch the sun engulfed in shadow, and thirty minutes later, we laugh and return to our daily affairs. We watch our children grow old and we die, never struck by the pounding insistence of death until it comes for us. As Dillard herself writes, on the last page of the book: “I thought I was younger, and would have more time.”