There seems to be a lot of talk about nature writing these days, perhaps due to our late discovery that we’re killing off our habitat.
In a recent discussion on Facebook, a friend had said that it’s a bit of a fad right now. If nature writing’s a fad, and a fad signifies something trendy and in-the-moment and, ultimately, transient, then now is the perfect time to re-introduce readers to Annie Dillard.
Clearly there’s a need to be reminded that nature writing has always been around and, long before Al Gore made saving the environment a movement, it’s always been important.
The Abundance is a superbly curated work, bringing some of Dillard’s best essays together in a single book. The word “essay”, though, can feel a cold and detached thing, something dependent on knowledge rather than emotion, and Dillard’s writing is anything but.
As a devotee of metaphysics, her work stems from large questions and tiny details. Leaving how we live in our world to the novelists, Dillard’s concern is how we live with our world.
This sounds a sombre investigation, but in reading The Abundance it’s impossible to ignore the author’s quirkiness. Not only does she point out the comic in creatures (and especially humans), in our traditions and in religion, even in the God she reveres, but her writing is comical, too. Pair that with grand statements such as, “I smelled silt on the wind, turkey, laundry, leaves…my God, what a world. There is no accounting for one second of it”, and you’ve got something truly special.
Having read only Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which, it so happens, I was about to re-read until I was given the opportunity to review this book), The Abundance has encouraged me to buy more of her books, specifically Teaching a Stone to Talk. Essays from that book both open and close this new selected-works and they’re perfectly placed to do so.
And how can I go past The Writing Life now that I’ve read “A Writer in the World”, where Dillard suggests that a writer should “assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” Good advice, because this is how she writes.
The Abundance is so far from trivial that it is the book I would give a terminal patient. Why wait till you’re bed-ridden to read it, though? My advice is to read it now, though slowly, and some of it repeatedly.
The Abundance, by Annie Dillard, is published by Allen & Unwin, $34.99.