Sunday, January 23, 2011


Annie Dillard is one of my favorite writers. She has a connection to the natural world that pervades her writing. Often, she writes what I call poetic prose. Her first book that I discovered was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In it, she writes:
"I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia's Blue Ridge. An anchorite's hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It's a good place to live; there's a lot to think about. The creeks - Tinker and Carvin's -are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection."
In another of her books, Holy the Firm, Dillard lives on an island in Puget Sound. Here she explores the firmness of "the Holy." Her picture of a burning moth caught in a candle flame is only one of her unforgettable descriptions and it parallels in its rendering of the hard things in life, the burning face of a seven year old girl trapped in a flaming airplane crash. Dillard asks the age old questions about suffering and meaning and gives her response.
"Does something that touched something that touched Holy the Firm in touch with the Absolute at base seep into ground water, into grain; are islands rooted in it, and trees? Of course."
The other book by Dillard I'm thinking about as I write this is For the Time Being. In it she has a rather extended discussion of dust. The sunlight is coming through my window and as I look in the beam there is all manner of stuff floating there. Dillard writes:
"Earth sifts over things. If you stay still, earth buries you, ready or not. The debris on the tops of your shoes thickens, windblown dirt piles around it, and pretty soon your feet are underground."
She goes on to describe how a ton of micrometeorite dust falls on the earth every hour; and how ruins are discovered, buried under yards of earth. And what are the possible origins of those bits floating in my sunbeam: rug, dung, eroding tires, coal, leaf hairs, spider legs, skin, sand, spores, sweat, spit, and so forth. We're being buried, so "why aren't you dusting?" she asks.

Dusting, indeed! How is it that we are so out of touch with what we breathe and torch and drink? How is it possible that we are so little aware of burying the earth in fragments of chemicals, computers, carcinogens? Where are our anchor-holds?

Dillard suggests some answers. She is a person who writes about places she has experienced. She has an anchor-hold. People of place best know their place in the world.

She is also an astute observer of nature.

I can usually recall those few times I've seriously observed the natural world. Like the summer day forty years ago when I heard a buzzing sound and discovered a common house fly caught in a spider web on the window. I watched it struggle without success for ten minutes. The spider casually waited nearby for the struggle to end. After fifteen minutes, the fly tore a wing off in it's effort at freedom. Although I have little sympathy for flies, I had to intervene. The spider lost a meal and a one winged fly disappeared behind the curtain.

It's hard to miss the mystery and joys of this world, if you are a person of place, carefully observing the richness of Creation. It's also hard to make war on the planet, if you look, up close, at burning moths and one winged flies, especially with an anchor-hold.

Carl Kline

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