The Thoreau of the Suburbs
In her memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed describes what it was like to be a woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, where a fellow traveler dubbed her “the only girl in the woods.” Strayed wasn’t just a rarity on the rugged PCT. She’s one of relatively few female writers in an American tradition that dates back to Henry David Thoreau. “The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender,” notes environmental history professor William Cronon in a 1995 New York Times Magazine article. “Here, in the wilderness, a man could be a real man, the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity.”
One of the first women to defy this stereotype and write her way into the male-dominated canon was Annie Dillard. She won the 1975 nonfiction Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book describing her explorations in the Virginia valley where she lived. In its chapters, she spends a lot of time sitting on a sycamore log over the creek, watching a praying mantis lay eggs or seeing a giant water bug sucking up a frog’s body (leaving behind its crumpled skin). She comes across as audacious, inquisitive, and hilarious, chasing wood ducks and sleeping alone without a tent under a moonless sky. The book raises questions about the horrors and beauties of nature, and the power of the present moment in a world that’s constantly being created. It’s also a chronicle of solitude.
In many ways, Pilgrim reads like an updated version of Walden, and that’s exactly the kind of book Dillard was trying to write. At one point, while thinking through the order of her chapters, she jotted down in her notes, “Remember HDT’s [Henry David Thoreau’s] alternation of chapters with solitude + society, light and dark, indoors and outdoors, etc. How to do this?” As Dillard considered potential titles for the book, she thought of Tinker Creek (echoing Thoreau’s Walden), Creekside Solitaire (adapting Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire), Infinite Storm (borrowing a line from John Muir), and Tinker Creek Almanac (evoking Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac).
But no matter what she named her book, Dillard knew she wasn’t like those other authors. She wasn’t a man living alone in the wild. In fact, she wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a “Virginia housewife named Annie.” She couldn’t change the fact that she lived in Virginia or was a housewife named Annie, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Her husband never made it into the book.
I first discovered Dillard’s effort to enter the canon of wilderness writing while leafing through her notebooks—making my way through 74 boxes and 49.35 linear feet of scrapbooks, journals, notecards, high school diaries, and letters to editors and friends, most of which Dillard had donated herself to Yale’s Beinecke Library. I was there as a researcher but also as a fan. I had read Thoreau for years; my most-used copy of Walden (for some reason, I’ve accumulated four) no longer has a front or back cover. I absorbed the book’s emphasis on solitude and looked for ways to experience it in my own life: I took time off from college. I camped alone. I went for 40-mile trail runs alone. I lived in an Alaskan cabin without water or electricity alone.
Eventually, I discovered Dillard, and it wasn’t long before my copy of Pilgrim was nearly as tattered and broken as my Walden. When I found out about her Yale archive, I dove in without looking for anything in particular—maybe a few more lyrical passages and some answers to nosy questions, like what her parents had thought when she’d married her professor as a 20-year-old, why she’d divorced that husband, and how she’d met her new one. What I found, though, was evidence of her deliberate effort to join the ranks of American authors who had ventured alone into the wild.
Dillard had been thinking deeply and critically about wilderness writing ever since her days at Hollins, a small women’s college in Virginia. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1967, she stayed for another year and wrote a master’s thesis about Walden. In her thesis, she made playful jabs at Thoreau. Wondering what kind of book it was, she observed that it wasn’t a classic naturalist’s notebook (“Walden Pond is remarkably devoid of interesting wildlife”). It wasn’t social satire (the satire in it was “never sustained or directed”). It wasn’t a one-man utopian treatise (“Thoreau’s venture in the woods was not a commitment to a way of life but an extended vacation”). It wasn’t philosophy, either (“the philosophy in Walden is imprecise, disordered, and mostly if not entirely derivative”). She argued that Walden was “really a book about a pond.”
From there, though, her initial jibes turned toward admiration. She called the pond “a vehicle for thought,” “the perfect metaphor,” “not like heaven; it is heaven.” (Thoreau had made this explicit: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”) According to Dillard, dwelling on the pond itself afforded Thoreau “not a fleeting painful glimpse of what might be, but a constant and inspiring parable of what is.”
At the time she wrote this thesis, Dillard was living near Hollins with her husband, Richard, whom she had married at the end of her sophomore year. After she finished her degree, her life remained very much the same. She had lunches with her friends on the faculty, read, and drew. She wrote poems she sent to magazines and eventually published in the collection Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. But her main project was softball. She hung around the graduate students at Hollins, most of whom were men, to make sure she would have enough people to play with in the spring.
“Back then it was rare for a woman my age, my time, to have a boy’s arm,” she told me during a recent phone conversation. “And I had exactly that thing, so I wanted to play with people who could play. I loved the game.”
One day, an alumna came back to Hollins to visit Richard, and since he was busy, Dillard took her for a stroll around the neighborhood. “On the walk I thought, God there’s a lot of neat stuff out here, and after that, I started taking those walks all the time,” she told me. “I was fascinated because it was just a stupid little suburban neighborhood, but animals don’t care. They don’t care a bit. And I would always see interesting animals around.”
In October of 1972, she and her husband went on a trip up north. “Richard Dillard was on sabbatical, and I was all excited about camping,” she told me. “And so I dragged him off to camping in Maine, at Acadia car camping, nothing interesting. And we lived there that whole October, in that tent. And I was reading and reading and reading as I always do.”
According to her journals at the time, Dillard had read 58 books since her graduation a few years earlier. Some of them were “giant-sized,” as she put it. Others, by authors like Merton, Thoreau, and Emerson, she called “heavy going.” One of the books she read that fall was The Northern Farm, a 1949 memoir by Henry Beston that chronicles an agricultural season in Maine. It didn’t prove to be a satisfying read, but it did change her life. In one of her journals—filled with a mix of musings, observations, notes, and doodles—Dillard began an entry with the title, “Why I didn’t like this book.” She wrote, “It was a bore. Not only did nothing happen, okay, but there was no trace of mind. As a naturalist he didn’t teach me a thing. He didn’t even bother to look up fireflies. As an observer of the social scene, which is a boring thing to be in the 1st place, he’s ordinary and conservative. No imagination.”
As Dillard kept writing, though, she realized something: what Beston lacked—knowledge of the two enzymes that allow fireflies to make their light, imagination, and a “trace of mind”—she could provide. And in that moment of I could do better, the idea for Pilgrim was born.
But how would she do it? She scribbled notes about two books she did like—Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Beston’s The Outermost House—and asked what had made those year-in-the-woods books successful. Her answer? A sense of the author’s courage. She wondered how to structure her book in some other way than by the seasons. She wondered if she should say that she lived in West Virginia rather than in Virginia to “get the freaks.”
“Damn it,” she wrote. “I’m going to do it, I am.”
By the time Dillard decided to write Pilgrim, she had filled dozens of journals with passages from what she had been reading, anecdotes from her walks, facts about natural history, and dreams about luna moths mating. She had started writing in journals to help her quit smoking, but by the time she was writing in her second spiral notebook, she’d realized writing down her thoughts gave her physical access to the contents of her mind, as if everything she had ever read were fresh in her mind.
“Of course I’m smoking still,” she told me recently. “That was one of many times I quit smoking.”
In the pages of those 1970s journals, she sometimes wondered if Thoreau got lonely (“He wouldn’t have been utterly sexless, could he?”). She wrestled with questions of religion (“Even if you won’t grant a God, there’s still nature, still what is”). She looked at tiny things and had huge thoughts: In one entry, she described a stroll in which she encountered an old prescription bottle, collected some kind of egg case in it, and showed it to a scientist. She told him what she thought the big idea of nature was. “And he said, ‘Gee, I never thought of that,’ and I wondered what he had been thinking about.”
She decided to use her journals to write the book and set about copying what she thought was most interesting onto notecards. She ended up with a 17-inch box filled with 1,100 notecards that she shuffled and reshuffled, trying to divide the anecdotes, facts, quotes, and ideas into chapters.
The glee of coming up with the idea for the book soon gave way to the struggle of putting the book together. She asked in one notebook, “What the hell am I going to do with these notecards?” Pages later, she wrote, “I am going nuts over this book. What kind of book is it?”
She saw her material as two books, one like Northern Farm (“walks and descriptions—a narrative of homelife a pied”) and another that was “wildly artistic, poetic in a strong sense, and even theological.” At the time, this seemed to her like a battle in which one side would win out over the other. But the combination of these two elements eventually defined Pilgrim. After all, other year-in-the-woods books had done the same, often mixing the life of the legs in the country with the life of the mind there.
The bigger problem was figuring out what to do with the parts of her life that didn’t fit the mold. The woods that Tinker Creek wind through are a couple of miles from Hollins College. The campus is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains but within the limits of Roanoke, a city with a population just under 100,000 at the time Dillard was writing.
Dillard knew that being a graduate student, or a professor’s wife living in the suburbs, wasn’t as exciting as, say, living alone in Arches National Park, as Abbey did. In Desert Solitaire, he describes the gopher snake he befriended to keep rattlesnakes away from his trailer. The gopher sometimes wrapped around his waist, inside his shirt, and rested on his belt. (“I’m a humanist,” he writes, “I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”) Such a narrator embodied all the right American ideals: the mythic frontiersman, the wild man, the true hermit.
Dillard became worried and discouraged. She wrote in her journal, “It’s impossible to imagine another situation where you can’t write a book ’cause you weren’t born with a penis. Except maybe Life With My Penis.”
One thing Dillard knew—but many of her potential readers didn’t—was that there had always been a certain amount of delusion involved in the lone-man-in-the-wilderness narrative. It started with Thoreau: Around the time Walden came out in 1854, Americans were beginning to see nature as a place to find peace—not a force to be subdued, as their Puritans ancestors had believed. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” Thoreau wrote in his 1862 Atlantic essay “Walking.” “Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.”
But what was the “wildness” Thoreau was describing? Critics have pointed out that Thoreau’s cabin, on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, was within easy walking distance of Concord. There were rumors that he’d had his mother do his laundry the whole time he was living in at Walden. Emerson himself has been criticized for being an armchair naturalist who philosophized about the woods without ever truly immersing himself in them.
Still, the ideal of the authentic wilderness man carried on long after Thoreau. John Muir, who read Walden as a young man, gently mocked the Transcendentalists for their civilized New England version of “wildness.” Muir actually did live in the wild, setting off for weeks at a time on what others called his “wild goose chases.” He walked with no blankets through Canada, climbed high into the trees to feel the whip of storms, and plunged into the icy waters of a crevasse amid the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. In one essay, published in The Atlantic in 1900, Muir recalled how he’d invited Emerson to Yosemite and tried to persuade him to spend the night in the camp. “You are yourself a sequoia,” Muir had futilely pleaded. “Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.” By that time, the Sage of Concord had already failed in his efforts to civilize Muir. “Emerson prophesies … that I will one day go to him and ‘better men’ in New England, or something to that effect,” wrote Muir in an 1873 letter, “but I have been too long wild, too befogged and befogged to burn well in their patent high-heated educational furnaces.”
After Muir, other writers strove to emulate his brand of wilderness living, but few were able to live up to it. In 1913, Joseph Knowles went off to wander alone in the Maine woods with no equipment, attempting to live “as Adam lived.” But his one-time experiment was just 60 days long and carefully designed to impress readers of The Boston Post. As Roderick Nash recounts in his book Wilderness and the American Mind, Knowles wrote dispatches for the newspaper with charcoal on birch bark about his adventures making friction fires, bark clothing, and meals of berries and trout. When he returned to Boston, he was welcomed with cheers, and he toured from Augusta to Portland, giving speeches to thousands of people about the merits of living in the wild. His book Alone in the Wilderness sold 300,000 copies.
Americans still like what Dillard calls the “purity” associated with living alone in the wild. In a recent article for GQ, Michael Finkel wrote about “the last true hermit,” a man named Christopher Knight who had spent nearly 30 years living alone in the woods of central Maine. When the man was arrested for the 40 or so robberies he had committed, he was surprised that so many people he encountered expected him to speak in aphorisms and have some hidden insight into the true nature of society—as though everyone who had chosen to live in the woods was granted Thoreau-like wisdom. "Some people want me to be this warm and fuzzy person,” said Knight. “All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home."
The demand for a true wilderness experience has spilled over to TV, where shows like Man vs. Wild and even the Survivor franchise try to create an illusion of total isolation. Alaska: The Last Frontier, a reality show on the Discovery Channel, documents the life of an extended family homesteading in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. Each episode opens with a pan of the surrounding land. In this pan, producers carefully avoid the nearby town of Homer, where the camera crew stays, making the Kilchers look like they live alone in the snowy mountains at the edge of the world.
Dillard knew what American audiences wanted when she began working on her book. In one journal entry, she considered writing it as a novel, in the voice of a male narrator living alone at “the Lucas place,” which is a house that makes an appearance in Pilgrim: a one-room cottage that she describes as mostly porch and broken windows. Without the constraints of nonfiction, Dillard wrote, she would have the right sex (male), the right number of people (one), and the right home (remote cabin). “If I call it truth and leave out Richard and this house, then not only do I lose the selling-points I think I need—but also I open myself to the charge of hating my husband,” she mused in her journal. “But I think I must. I switch around.”
In one of her notebooks, she described a conversation she had with her husband and two friends one evening that fall. None of them seemed to understand her dilemma. They didn’t agree that “being a man, and being alone, are essential. And that the reader buys a man alone in nature more than the details of natural history."
Richard later read one of her early attempts to write in a male voice, and he told her she sounded like “a fruit.” One of the give-aways was her mention of Kleenex: All men, he explained, carried handkerchiefs.
Dillard eventually settled on writing the book as nonfiction—or something close. “After all,” she wrote in one journal, “we’ve had the nonfiction novel—it’s time for the novelized book of nonfiction.”
The book begins with an act of novelization. In her notes, she wrote that she wanted to start with an image that would be something about “(baptism), blood as X’s [Christ’s] sacrifice, wash as baptism, death and mystery and beauty liberates.” She accomplished that with this evocative sentence: “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.” Some mornings, she went on to say, she’d wake up to find herself covered with bloody paw prints that looked like roses.
When Dillard was brainstorming this opening scene in the fall of 1972, she wrote, “Open whole w/ waking up covered with bloody paw marks… (prob: why is window open unscreened?).” This last “problem” refers to how the cat would have been able to jump through her window, land on her chest, stick his skull under her nose, and purr. (She ultimately solved that problem by setting the scene in the heat of summer and later adding that she now sleeps with the window shut.)
When I asked about the tomcat in the first sentence, she told me she’d heard a similar story from “some poor graduate student” named Frank McCullough over lunch at the Hollins snack bar. “I said, ‘Gosh that’s a good image,’” Dillard told me. “I was just the faculty wife. ‘Oh, can I use that?’ ‘Sure honey.’ We had no idea in the world that these words were going to live. It was a great first sentence.”
Some of the novelization was subtler. With a name like “Annie Dillard” on the cover, there was no hiding her gender. “All of the books I took as models had been written by men,” she told me. “And my father, most importantly, never read a book by a woman in his whole life.” She continued to think about publishing the book under a pseudonym. “I thought it would have a better chance. You know — if you write something you want someone to see it.” But after she published a chapter in Harper’s and another in The Atlantic under her real name, “the jig was up.”
Even though Pilgrim was clearly written by a woman, its narrator doesn’t always seem like one. In one passage, Dillard compares herself to a man who returns to the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm. In another, she describes herself as “King of the Meadow.” In a third, she asks herself, “What if I were the first man in the world?”
Disguising her surroundings was more of a challenge. Her friends were amused when they read through her early notes and drafts and saw descriptions of a valley far from human settlement. As she wrote in her journal, they “said, laughing, that they got the sense I was living in this incredible wilderness.”
Dillard also went out of her way to emphasize her aloneness. In the first chapter, she compares her home to “an anchorite’s hermitage,” alluding to a simple shed clamped onto the side of a church like a barnacle. Later, she describes herself as “no longer quite fit for company.” The only human interaction she has in the book is with a man who gives her a Styrofoam cup of coffee on a solitary drive home. The husband she lives with, the friends she lunches with, and the people she plays softball with are all conspicuously missing.
In one dramatic moment, late in the book, Dillard shrinks from the brutality of nature. “It looks for the moment as though I might have to reject the creek life unless I want to be utterly brutalized,” she writes. “Is human culture with its values my only real home after all? Can it possibly be that I should move my anchor-hold to the side of a library?”
In fact, by the time she wrote the last half of the book, she was spending her days in a study carrel in the Hollins College library. As Dillard later recounted in her 1989 memoir The Writing Life, the window she sat next to while writing much of Pilgrim overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof, and as she worked, she could see people pulling into the parking lot and climbing out of their cars. She found this sight distracting, so she lowered the blinds and covered them with a hand-drawn picture of a landscape.
Dillard was so successful in casting herself as a lone sojourner that online biographies often allude to an undefined period when she left her husband and went off to live alone in the woods. When I was in college, I heard a student, whom I’ll call Kate, fall into this error; she introduced Dillard before a class discussion of her work and apologized that she hadn’t been able to pinpoint the exact dates of Dillard’s time in the wild. The reason she couldn’t find those dates was that Dillard had never left civilization. She’d simply left civilization out of the book.
If the author conveys a resonant truth, does it matter what experiences led to the realizations?
When I first emailed Dillard and asked her about the differences between her own life and that of Pilgrim’s narrator, she responded by invoking Thoreau. As she pointed out, the 1957 study The Making of Walden showed that Thoreau had condensed more than two years of his life into a one-year narrative. She went on: “Thoreau scholars ridicule youths who say Thoreau’s no good because he (sometimes) (often) (every night) had dinner at his mother’s house in Concord. As youth I, too, sought purity. Now I know we’re all compromised by impurities, by the conditions of time and death.”
Later, Dillard emphasized that a nonfiction writer has an unwritten pact with the reader: that the writer is telling the truth. “Walden, shaped as it was,” she added, “nevertheless told the truth.”
When Pilgrim was published, Dillard didn’t try to hide the fact that the book was, at times, a work of imagination. Even at the height of her fame, in 1978, Dillard told interviewer Mike Major how she’d written Pilgrim from hundreds of notecards, calling it hard and terribly frustrating work and acknowledging that she sometimes distorted the literal truth to achieve an artistic one. But readers, she said, “think it happens in a dream, that you just sit on a tree stump and take dictation from some little chipmunk.” She resisted the idea that the public was making her into a cult figure, retorting, “All that stuff about lifestyle is completely irrelevant!”
I asked Dillard whether any other details in the book besides the tomcat had been invented rather than seen. “Gee, I can’t think of any,” she said. “It wasn’t exactly totally exciting. A little muskrat in a creek or ditch. My current husband used to see them in ditches in Denver all the time. If I were going to make up stuff, it would be bears! Mountain lions! Eagles! No, I wasn’t making up stuff.”
Her greatest distortions, she added, had been omissions rather than inventions. “I didn’t obscure anything, I just left it out,” she said, referring to her husband and her suburban life. She told me in an email that she had asked Richard how he wanted to be treated in the book. “He said, ‘Leave me out of it.’ (Not yelling—he never yelled. A wonderful man.) Sure; of course I complied. He had been my professor!” She added that he hadn’t been involved in the excursions she described. “It’s not that Richard Dillard was taking walks with me and I wrote him out—that didn’t happen at all. He was teaching!” she said. “Have you ever been married? You don’t go around as a unit.”
Even still, she said, before publishing Pilgrim she hadn’t realized how wild she’d made the valley seem. “I didn’t say, ‘I walked by the suburban brick houses,’” she told me. “Why would I say that to the reader? But when I saw that reviewers were acting like it was the wilderness, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’ So the first thing I wrote after was ‘The Weasels,’” referring to “Living Like Weasels,” an essay that appears in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk. “I said in it, ‘This is, mind you, suburbia.’ Because I hadn’t meant to deceive anybody. I just put in what was interesting.”
That essay also included a tamer description of the valley. In a paragraph about Hollins Pond, which is near Tinker Creek, Dillard writes, “It is a five-minute walk in three directions to rows of houses, though none is visible here. There’s a 55-mph highway at one end of the pond, and a nesting pair of wood ducks at the other. Under every bush is a muskrat hole or a beer can. The far end is an alternating series of fields and woods, fields and woods, threaded everywhere with motorcycle tracks—in whose bare clay wild turtles lay eggs.”
As for why she relocated to the library, she pointed out that writers typically do write at desks or tables; only the most naive reader would have assumed that she’d written all of Pilgrim while sitting outside with a notebook on her knees. It also helped to get some distance from home, she added—and not just because “the house keeps crying out to you, ‘Fix me! Wash me!’” She continued, “Writers very often need to be away from a place to write about it well. Ibsen wrote his Norway plays when he was living in Italy. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels when she was living in New York City. James Joyce wrote his Dublin novel and Dublin short stories when he was living in Paris. Mark Twain wrote about Missouri when he was living in Hartford. Walt Whitman wrote about life outside and they found out recently he barely left his room. That’s called critical distance or something. You have to have it.”
After all, as Dillard told me, one of the goals of writing about an experience is to mythologize it—“not that one is aware that one is mythologizing, but you want everything simplified and enlarged.” Most of us do this subconsciously whenever we tell stories. (That Alaskan cabin without water or electricity I mentioned earlier? I did live there alone, but it didn’t occur to me to add that I actually lived pretty close to the homesteaders I rented the cabin from and often visited them to charge my phone and use their Internet.) The best wilderness stories are valued not just for their descriptions of solitude and wilderness, but also for the insights their authors gain during their encounters with the natural world—what Dillard called their “trace of mind.”
“Thoreau was a fabulous writer,” Dillard told me. “He said he was writing boldly, lustily, like a chanticleer to wake his neighbors up.”
Dillard follows Thoreau’s bold example throughout her book. In one chapter, titled “Seeing,” she writes about blind people who have had their sight restored. Their descriptions of the world are sometimes confused—one describes shadows as “dark marks,” and another walks into the garden and asked about “the tree with the lights in it.” Dillard chases this kind of vision, trying to see the world as brand new:
I was walking along Tinker Creek and thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.
Language like this might seem hyperbolic, especially considering what Dillard was actually looking at: a backyard cedar in a suburban town. But in many ways, her mundane surroundings make her achievement even more impressive. Other writers have hunted down awe-inspiring experiences in far-flung places: on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the wilds of Arches National Park, or among the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. But Dillard walked around her own neighborhood and captured a world that was buzzing with wonders and horrors.
In The Writing Life, Dillard describes what she sees as the goal of all literature, nonfiction as well as fiction: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?” In Pilgrim, Dillard selectively described her world and life, but she also isolated and vivified those parts of it that would engage intellects and hearts for years to come. These days, she’s no longer living in the same house or married to the same man. But her descriptions of Tinker Creek—its flora and fauna, its brutality and beauty—read as true as they ever did. “The vision comes and goes, mostly goes,” Dillard writes, describing the tree with the lights in it, “but I live for it, for the moment the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”
via The Atlantic
January 28, 2018 at 06:32AM