Contemplating the Infinite with Annie Dillard
"One of the most sensitive, listening intelligences ever to breathe American air"
The following appears in this month’s issue of Poets & Writers.
Annie Dillard wasn’t sure she was going to like me, she says, not long after I arrive at her cabin near Cripple Creek, Virginia, in the dark vastness of a November evening. Night had dropped abruptly as a curtain, just as she had warned it would, and were it not for the nearly topographic directions she’d emailed beforehand, and a few tips by telephone from her husband, Bob—that is, Robert D. Richardson, biographer of Thoreau and Emerson and William James—I probably would have been skulking about in the dark, kicking into one of the old iron forges Confederates used to make cannonballs a hundred fifty years ago. “I wasn’t sure if you were one of those guys who doesn’t like taking directions from a woman,” she says.
Instead, thanks to Dillard’s directions and a good bit of luck, my friend Garnette Cadogan—who came along as my copilot—and I are sitting at her dining table, cupped in the mountain cove’s silence that fills the room like a held breath, we men sipping whiskey and trying to play it cool as one of the most sensitive, listening intelligences ever to breathe American air perches before us like a falcon, unsure whether we’re for the eating or for the protecting. Dillard inquires if we mind smoke, lights an American Spirit and inhales deeply. As Bob lays out a simple supper of sweet potatoes and salmon, she steps into the silence, quizzing us on some of the books we’ve read recently.
Not surprisingly—for a writer who casually dropped into one of her books, as an aside, “I have been reading comparative cosmology”—the path into this conversation gets steep very quickly. Her references fan out, leaping from one outcropping of literary news to the next until my bad planning or Garnette’s driving or what is being read in New York seem a long way down. What do we think of Karl Ove Knausgaard? Is it possible he might not be as interesting as he thinks he is? Have we heard of Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell, the Australian writer? Now that is a masterpiece. Pico Iyer’s book on Graham Greene? He’s very good at ping-pong, Dillard adds, improbably. What about women, Garnette asks, after Dillard lists a string of books by men. Are there any women writers she likes? “I don’t read as many women as I’m told I should be reading,” Dillard replies. “I don’t like doing what I am expected to do.”
We start talking about humor, and as if tuned by sonar to Dillard’s needs, Bob returns holding a book on stand-up comedy by Phil Berger.
You can almost hear the pops and fizzes of combustion as the flue clears and Dillard’s mind gulps down the oxygen it has been feeding on for years—books. It’s something to behold. Here is the sensibility that emerged from a white-glove Pittsburgh background because she read a novel about Rimbaud and wanted her mind to be on fire too. Here is the writer who pulled it off, chiseling out Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974), the Walden of our time, in nine months because she read a book on nature and felt she could do better. And thus Dillard wrote that great, elegant prayer to the seasons, largely at night, in the Hollins College library in Roanoke, Virginia, powered by chocolate milk, Vantage cigarettes, and Hasidic theology. Here is the woman who, upon winning a Pulitzer Prize for that book at age 29, turned her back on fame and stepped even deeper into the void—this time all the way out to Lummi Island, Washington, in Puget Sound, to write a 66-page narrative on pain and eternity and God, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977).
In person, the effect of all this is like meeting a mountaineer whose work lay behind her but whose stories of having done it still get passed around as legend. If Holy the Firm pointed to the peak Dillard was trying to climb, and her next book, Living by Fiction (Harper & Row, 1982), was a nod to the people who had gone before her and failed, then the ones that followed, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper & Row, 1982) and The Writing Life (HarperCollins, 1989), told the story of actually doing it. The false starts, the caffeine yo-yos, the encounters in the Amazon or the Arctic—or at church—that kept pushing the horizon further out; the tapping at supporting rock walls and the bolts she’d drilled into them to see if they’d hold; the occasional plummets. All the hard work of staying awake, and the descent. One of the reasons Dillard is so beloved is that she tried just as hard to make the case that we could all do it, live this way, that all you need to do is work with a demented singularity of purpose.
But most of all, through everything, she has never stopped reading. “I have written down every book I’ve read since 1964,” Dillard explains as I turn the Berger book over now, wondering in what obscure corner of her mind she will sock this information away. These diaries now get packed off to Yale’s Beinecke Library as fast as she fills them, just the name of the book and occasionally a checkmark, if it was really loved. I remark there’s something almost monkish about this notational labor, surely she must be the best-read person for hundreds, if not thousands of miles—an assertion she refutes before I can finish the comment by telling me about Bob’s physician, who had read one of her books in German and English, just for the comparison.
As for her, what is she after, inhaling those hundred or more books a year since age five? That library in the sky of her mind she has built. What is she seeking? “It’s what I’m for,” Dillard says simply, putting out her cigarette. “Somebody has to read all these books.”
* * * *
For the past ten years, that—and painting, and walking—is what Annie Dillard has been up to. “I had a good forty years of writing,” she explains to me later, but she stopped writing after her novel The Maytrees was published by Harper in 2007. “There’s no shame to stopping. My last two books were as high as I could go,” she adds, referring to the novel and For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999), her book about belief in landscape and time. The smoke has barely cleared from these books, though, and it is only now, as her oeuvre has settled into the culture—or perhaps, most important, the loam of its writers—that its radical illumination has begun to reveal its long neon half-life.
It is through the doorways Dillard torched open that writers as diverse as Jonathan Lethem and Maggie Nelson have stepped, the latter of whom was one of Dillard’s students at Wesleyan and is now a friend. “Her books are wild,” Nelson writes to me. “They do what they please; they do what they need to do; they keep their eye trained on the things that matter most.” Geoff Dyer was also enabled by Dillard’s permission and contributes an introduction to The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, which is being published this month by Ecco with selections from all of Dillard’s work, including the lamenting and powerful uncollected essay she published after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
I tell Dillard the story of a writer I know, Phil Klay—a future marine, no less—who didn’t learn of the attacks until days later because he was walking the Appalachian Trail. “I was on the beach in Cape Cod,” she replies, nodding. “I came out of this shack I was writing in and figured now might be a good time to disappear.” She then taped a twenty-dollar bill to the gate at the top of the dunes, on the hope a passing stranger with honor and time to spare would pick up some provisions, some batteries. Someone did. Meanwhile, rather than wait, Dillard went back to doing what she has dedicated an enormous portion of her life to doing: contemplating the infinite.
Even in the dark near Cripple Creek, bedtime approaching, it’s clear the apparatus for this life remains in place. Dillard lives in a cabin separate from her husband’s, and has a third where she paints. All of this will be shown to us in the morning. “Bob,” Dillard says, just before turning in, eyes over my shoulder, “those are headlights.” For a brief second Richardson’s face flashes with alarm, and then indeed two beams begin to snake up Dillard’s long gravel driveway. As Bob walks out onto the porch to greet the surprise guest, Dillard explains to us that this is most likely Gary LaVallee, a friend from the area who helped Dillard clear the land on which she built the two additional buildings.
Gary’s methods are as extreme as Dillard’s observational register is austere. He doesn’t work with a crew, just his car, which he repeatedly drove into tree trunks on the nearby hillside to fell the evergreens, then hacked up what was left with an ax. His arms are as muscled as those of a professional rugby player. His eyes twinkle benevolently. Somewhere in the hills nearby he is building an enormous, five-thousand-square-foot cabin, alone, by hand, with eighty-foot logs he raises by himself with a pulley system. Gary talks genially and then excitedly when he finds out Garnette is working on a book about Bob Marley: “I heard him open for Springsteen.” He offers to pick up milk or anything else for Bob and Annie, and when told they’re okay, gently leaves.
Until recently, Bob and Annie inform us as Gary departs, he was driving around the hills of Cripple Creek in an antique dump truck with no brakes and a pile of boulders in the back. Now Gary gets around mostly by pickup or car, and occasionally he parks in their drive to use their Wi-Fi and get on Facebook.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” Dillard says, packing up her books and supplies for a night of reading, “but I believe God watches out for Gary LaVallee.”
* * * *
In the morning the cabin is clobbered by light. Deer stand in groups chewing on dewy grass so far away, yet still visible, the eye needs a moment to adjust its lens before one can count the animals. Hunters cannot shoot on this land and the animals seem to know it. Dillard owns most of what the eye can see, but is loose with her ownership. Appalachian land is cheap. Some of it she has bequeathed already to her friend, the activist physician Paul Farmer. It’s quite a spread; her great-grandfather founded the company that became American Standard. Bob boils rich Cuban coffee strong enough to compete with the view. As he begins frying up eggs, he raises Annie on a walkie-talkie to let her know breakfast will be ready soon. By the time she arrives at the table, Bob has pointed out cardinals and owls in the brush.
As we eat, details of Dillard’s biography—the known things—slip out in asides and in peripheral conversation, echoing some of what Bob told us the night before over a nightcap. How they met because she wrote him a fan letter for Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986); how he was already teaching her book to students when she wrote; how they met for lunch—both of them married; and how they didn’t look back when it was clear they were falling in love. He is Dillard’s third husband. “She is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Bob tells us when she is not present, “and I’ve known some smart ones.”
“I got my name from my first husband,” she explains to me later in an email. “I had no intention of getting married, let alone young. Richard Dillard, my poetry-writing professor, talked me into it. It was fine. That was a ten-year marriage, after which I headed west and met Gary Clevidence. We were together twelve years. With Bob it’s been twenty-eight years and counting.”
The novelist Lee Smith met Dillard as a freshman at Hollins, and has known her ever since. “The class was filled with talent,” she wrote to me, “but Annie’s was always extraordinary.
The group of us became a gang, a cohort, a karass—and we had fun, too. Inspired by Richard Dillard and his friend George Garrett, often on campus, an antic spirit prevailed. We wrote and put on plays, took over the newspaper, published our own literary magazine, Beanstalks, when the upperclassmen running the real literary magazine turned us down. We satirized everything and everybody. We loved to party, and we especially loved to dance.
This was true of Hollins girls in general. When several mostly-English majors formed a (really good, by the way) rock band named the Virginia Wolves, several of us became go-go dancers and performed with them at Hollins, UVA, and other literary festivals. We all had go-go names (I was Candy Love), white boots, glittery outfits, and cowboy hats—I don’t think Annie was an actual traveling go-go girl (no outfit) but she always loved to dance, and still does, to this day, as does my entire class, which always shows up for reunions (even the 45th, our last) with music like “Barbara Ann,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “My Girl,” etc. (I know, I know… you’d have to see this to believe it. Husbands flee.)
Watching Annie and Bob over breakfast, editing each other’s stories and officiating over the presentation of flatware, coffee, second and third helpings, it’s clear that whatever came before, this is the show. It is the big love, and they move with the grace and irascibility and tender watchfulness of a couple well into what Richard Ford called in his third Bascombe novel “the permanent period.” Virginia is one of three places they call home, boxes shipped ahead every six weeks like provisions sent further up a slope, the two of them following by plane with backpacks, like students. Spring and summer they spend on Cape Cod; in fall they are here in Virginia, and in winter they wind up in Key West, where over the decades they’ve come to know some remarkable writers—Joy Williams, Ann Beattie (who nursed Dillard during a recent hip surgery, coming by with movie rentals and hot meals), and the biographer and essayist Phyllis Rose. “These are some powerful, remarkable women,” Bob says, his eyebrows adding commentary.
“She was also one of the most generous teachers I’ve ever seen,” Rose writes when I ask her later about her friend. Dillard went to Wesleyan in 1979 at Rose’s request, after deciding her years in the Pacific Northwest were over and she was looking for someplace new—a general theme in Dillard’s life. “She was generous with her time, her hospitality, her advice, and even sometimes her money. She usually had classes meet at her house, and outside of class time students were welcome too, for ping-pong or potluck.” A ping-pong table sits on the cabin’s porch behind us.
Maggie Nelson says the games were part of the whole instruction method. “Annie made a writing workshop an ‘experience,’ involving an Act One, sitting in a classroom; then an intermission of sorts, which consisted of taking a brief walk through the Connecticut woods to her house; then an Act Two, with refreshments and reading aloud in her living room. On the way to her house there was a hole in a chain-link fence, which she taught us to crawl through, likely in celebration of both trespassing and accessing liminal spaces. She encouraged us to get out into the world, which explains at least one afternoon I spent playing video games with the owner of a local baseball-card store, in order to write a profile of him.”
I realize, when Dillard beckons us from breakfast for our tour of her own liminal spaces, that her demeanor is not that of a famous person reduced to interior scale—or even of a genius judging the brain capacity of two citified visitors—but that of a teacher who never truly left the classroom. She taught for four years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, followed by twenty-two years at Wesleyan, after all. “Studying with her was a top-to-bottom education on being a working artist,” novelist Alexander Chee tells me.
“I knew I liked you guys when I realized you read fiction; you’re fiction people,” Dillard says as we get ready to check out her cabin and her study. It’s a short walk over to the buildings, maybe a hundred paces, but in that space the energy changes. It feels wilder, more animal; a skull and pieces of wood sit on a table. The cabin itself is plastered with photographs of her friends and family; her daughter, a poet and Iowa MFA graduate who lives in Arkansas and whose privacy Annie asks me to respect; Gary LaVallee; Bob. There’s a photograph on her refrigerator door of a place in Turkey. Serious travel—for health reasons—is something Annie and Bob have had to give up recently, but, she says, “If I went again I’d go into the Hula Valley, the wilderness. Just to see it.”
A small shelf of books sits next to her laptop—an old hardback copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, among some beat-up paperbacks. Some volumes of her own books. Her books are no longer coming out at the alarming rate at which they appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, but this is where she still does the work she doesn’t consider work, firing off letters of encouragement and interest to writers all over the world.
Pico Iyer struck up a fast and ongoing long-distance friendship with Dillard, stoked by her correspondence. “Her emails to me, long and incandescent, veered between fervent literary recommendations (of Hardy, Joyce Cary, Robert Stone) and exuberant reminiscences of her cavorting on the beach and love of the [Pittsburgh] Pirates and delight in miniature golf.” If he was expecting a symposium in person, he was mistaken. “When we met, all she wanted to do was play ping-pong, in her backyard, each returned slam threatening to send a stack of books on esoteric theology or meteorology skidding off the dining table a few feet away. At some point, I realized that I was meeting the closest I could get to my longtime hero, D. H. Lawrence: someone furiously alive, attentive to everything and impossible to anticipate.”
As it did for Lawrence, painting has become Dillard’s primary mode of expression in later years. (She turned seventy this past year.) “I switched to painting,” she tells me. “Not really my art, but it lets me make something new. I paint people, mostly faces, in oils, on black-gessoed paper.” She invites Garnette and me to investigate the studio, which is as compact and crammed with information as a human skull.
The austerity of the studios she describes in Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, and Holy the Firm come zooming back like déjà-vu. Tacked-up pieces of paper describe radial-axis instructions for depth and perspective. Another piece of paper lists the radio stations on satellite radio. An orphaned pack of American Spirits gleams. The view out the window unfurls the cove and the mountain across.
* * * *
Bob radios back that it’s getting on toward noon, so we leave the studio and cabin and pile into his Toyota and head off in search of Gary LaVallee’s Valhalla, as locals have dubbed his massive log cabin in progress. We bounce treacherously up a muddy boulder-strewn drive out onto a high bluff only to discover this isn’t Gary’s yard at all. Whoever lives here has managed to transport, intact, an unmuddied, vintage 1940s low-rider with exposed piston, up the mountain, where it sits near a farmhouse, as improbable and somewhat sinister as a puma in a library. We circle around and down and off the hill and backtrack into town, Annie and Bob pointing things out along the way: the Confederate-era forge, the remnant of the railroad the army built into the mountains to haul the iron out, the hotel that was opened but never really took off.
Our destination is the Cripple Creek Mall, an ironically named general store where you can buy anything from MoonPies and soda made with real Carolina sugar to extension cords, hats, toilet drain snaking equipment, packaged ham, dried kale, bullets, and several strains of honey. Dillard talks to Eddie Younce, the proprietor, asking after his and his family’s health while he comments on how good she looks, after which Eddie delivers a detailed forty-five-minute dissertation to Garnette on the best places to gather and make honey in Appalachia. “I could sit and listen to my father and his friends talk about honey for two, three hours,” he tells us.
At some point during Eddie’s monologue, Annie and Bob back silently out of the store. We find them later down the lane, standing, holding hands, as if this is all there is to do in the world. It’s past noon and the sky is showing it and already I know we’re going to have to hurry to get out of Cripple Creek before dark. We hustle back to the house and through a lunch of chicken and potatoes before they send us packing. The light chases out of the hollows and falls again quickly as the little roads turn to interstate and Garnette and I race so I can make a train back to New York City. The next day, after I’ve woken in New York and the deep, soft pocket of earth we visited feels a million miles away, Dillard writes to me, the first of many emails about the late E. L. Doctorow, Key West, the Pacific Northwest, landscape and family, and generosity, as if she hadn’t been demonstrating it all along.
“Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist,” she writes in one. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” She may have stopped writing, but Annie Dillard continues to feed the minds of generations of writers. As she might say, that’s what she’s for.
All photos by the author.