Still clinging to my need to lead a “bigger life,” I read Robert MacFarlane’s advice on becoming a naturalist. “Become a monomaniac. Study one species, one acre of ground, one tree, until it has become a foreign country to you (fabulously strange) or one of the things you understand best in the whole world (fabulously familiar).”
What one thing could I study until it became fabulously strange or fabulously familiar? By November the natural world has pretty much tucked itself away for the winter. Then I remembered the spider in the corner of my garage door. I’ve been walking under that spider web every day for months. She was the fourth generation to live there—her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother all spun webs in that same corner.
I would keep a journal, illustrated with photos. Sure, I was getting a late start, Yet I remembered a lot, like how this year’s spider started spinning in April and how her webs weren’t very good at first, sort of like the summer I tried to teach myself to tat, buying a tatting shuttle and crochet thread at Rohr’s Five and Ten, and churning out a long grayish greasy knotted string that looked nothing like lace.
How one day the spider wove the web with a big hole in the center, like a portal, and I wished I could squeeze myself through it into a new life.
How I never, ever saw her, not even early mornings as I often surprised her mother putting the finishing touches on that day’s web. How this spider left the corner, leaving me fretting our garage wasn’t good enough and she’d found a better corner. And how she came back, suddenly, as if that other corner wasn’t so hot after all.
How once I saw a fly struggling in her web and stood there, wondering if I should free the fly so he could live, or let him stay so she could eat. I decided not to interfere.
How back in September I saw her tending her egg sac and knew her time was close.
By November she’d stopped weaving. And she stayed in the doorway, in plain sight. Nights were chilly. I figured she would die soon. When she did, I would take her down and identify her (after four years of watching these spiders, I still wasn’t sure of the species). I’d lay her crumpled body on a square of cotton and study her.
Then I would write an essay about her modest, noble life, something Annie Dillard-ish, a piece akin to E.B. White’s “Death of a Pig.” “Death of a Spider” doesn’t carry the same import, but this spider and I have a relationship and it’s worth examining.
The next morning I went out through the garage for the paper and looked up, as always. She lay still and crumpled in the doorway. I reached up one finger and poked her.
She dropped down indignantly on a silk thread, most definitely not dead! But the other spiders in the garage and bushes were gone. Why was she still here? The nights grew colder. I continued to check on her. Sometimes when I poked her, she extended a foreleg, all the energy she could muster. It wouldn’t be long now . . .
One morning I noticed a new web sparkling in the sun! When I looked up at her, she looked down at me, as if to say, Don’t write me off yet, sister.
Then the temperature plunged to 18 degrees. Ice skinned the birdbath. In her corner, the spider’s legs were drawn up. This was it, mostly likely.
I touched her gently. She plummeted on her silk thread to the code box. We were now eye-to-eye. I ran inside for my camera. By the time I got back, she’d folded up a bit. I touched her again to make her straighten out but she zipped up, clearly put out.
If the spider were keeping a field journal on me, it would read:
Here comes that turkey of a human again. Why does she keep prodding me? Doesn’t she know I bite? My bite is “unpleasant” but harmless. Heh heh. I will leave this world in my own good time. Meanwhile, back off.
My photos are terrible, but I got a good look at her. She’s a European garden spider, also called a cross spider after the markings on her back.
I kept a journal for one week on the spider. My handwriting is too big—I can’t do that tiny printing I used to—and my entries are too wordy. And then I stopped. It seemed enough to notice her, greet her every day, and hoped she noticed me [Who could miss that looming hulk gawking at me?].
Thoreau walked every afternoon. He took notes in a field notebook and made very simple sketches and maps. The next morning he entered his notes into a journal. Some of those entries were revised and polished into essays or lectures. He recorded simple things so that people would love the landscape as he did.
While at Hollins College, Annie Dillard wrote a thesis on Thoreau and Walden. After graduation, she spent a year or so at Tinker Creek, walking and observing. “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek,” she wrote, “in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”
I lag far behind Annie Dillard and trail so far behind Thoreau he isn’t even in sight, but I keep a close eye on simple things because I must, even if I don’t record my observations in lovely field journals.
Thoreau once said: “The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but has been there in person.”
This morning, days away from the end of November, a gorgeous web stretched defiantly across my spider’s corner. A tiny insect, fatally attracted by the light we keep on all night, was snared in the silk. She will eat that insect, along with the web, tonight. [Bon appetit!]
And I will try to make books from being there in person, in that fabulously strange and familiar place where there is plenty to think about.
Every so often I’m overtaken by what I call Thoreau Notions. I want to go live someplace by myself, hoe my row of beans, let mice scamper over my shoes, take long walks in the winter and think about the stars.
The truth? My idea of roughing it is no room service. Mice are fine outside but definitely not running over my feet. I can’t stand to be cold for even a second and in the winter I’m in pj’s with a book and a cat by eight o’clock, the heck with the stars.
Yet I’ve been drawn to nature writing since, at age nine, I read Dipper of Copper Creek by John and Jean George (Jean Craighead George actually wrote those early books; her ornithologist husband hogged the credit but she got the Newbery in the end). I read all the books by the Georges, and anything about rocks and birds and animals.
When I was 22, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek hit the bookstores. I read it, amazed someone so young could write so deeply about nature. Annie Dillard (a Hollins graduate) was 28—only six years older than me—when her book was published. The next year the book took the Pulitzer for nonfiction.
Dillard began keeping a journal in 1970 while she was living in the Virginia mountains. Pilgrim is based on those journals. Walden is based on Thoreau’s journals. Clearly the path to becoming a nature writer is to keep a journal. Better, an illustrated field journal.
Who hasn’t longed to keep a detailed illustrated journal like Hannah Hinchman? I bought this set back in 1990—a handbook and a blank book to start your own journal. The pages of mine are still pristine. Yet the urge to create an illustrated journal crops up alongside those Thoreau Notions. In 1999, I started a nature sketchbook. It’s all of four pages with such pithy observations as these:
A few summers ago I saw an exhibition by artist/naturalist Suzanne Stryk. Her mixed media art combines field journal entries, paintings, and natural elements like mole skulls. In the exhibition catalog I learned Stryk visits the wildest spots in Virginia. She paddled through Dragon Run Swamp, a place only accessible by canoe, at night to see the red eyes of spiders.
Nature writers and artists put themselves out there. Maybe it was time I did, too. Which is why last weekend I announced at breakfast that I need to do “something bigger” in my life besides write one book after another. I rattled on about us visiting wild places so I could photograph them and keep a field journal and write important essays that would be published in Orion, alongside the latest treatise by Elizabeth Kolbert.
My husband set his coffee cup down when I told him about canoeing through Dragon Run Swamp to see the red eyes of spiders. He knew who would be paddling the canoe and said we would not be visiting any swamp at night.
I sighed. But I still want to be like Annie Dillard and Thoreau and Suzanne Stryk and Hannah Hinchman. How? Apparently it’s not easy for anyone, even those committed to a natural life.
Hannah Hinchman says:
Sometimes I think the fierce girl I was is lost forever. Is it because I no longer have the Peter Pan-like power simply to believe? Breaking through to the wellspring requires a certain kind of cultivation now. It is an intentional act of recovering innocence. A great weight of sadness accumulates over the years, building up like travertine hot-spring deposits on the original bedrock of wonder. Enchantment is burdened by disappointment, unfulfilled promises, exhaustion, cruelty, the shackles of habit.
If anybody is bound by the shackles of habit and weighted by unfulfilled promises, it’s me. I should be glad I can go home to my little house and feed the cat and fix supper, even if I cook while reading (not a cookbook). I should be glad I’m able to write books about kids who aren’t burdened by disappointment or exhaustion.
May be it is time to let go of my Thoreau Notions once and for all.
Continued in Why I’ll Never Be Annie Dillard, Part II
The morning of our field trip, I began reading an article in the new issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, called “The World of the Story” by Eileen Pollack. I had no business reading anything—I had to be at Donna’s house by 7:00. But the piece drew me in with Pollack’s notion of setting in a story:
A more interesting way to conceive of setting is to imagine the world—or
worlds—a story’s characters inhabit, the cultures that produced them, the communities within which they do—and do not—feel at home.
I skimmed the rest before hurtling out the door. My friend Donna and I were taking the commuter train to D.C. to visit museums. The night before I set out my clothes, like I did back in elementary school, and packed a light bag (apparently filled with uranium ingots judging by how heavy it felt as the day went on).
Like kids on a school trip, we brought cameras, snacks, and enough conversation topics to keep us talking nonstop. Our day was an open adventure! Poor Donna didn’t suspect my real mission was to see the passenger pigeon exhibit that marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon.
I’d been to the Museum of Natural History several times, but for some reason when Donna and I entered the rotunda and saw that emblematic elephant, I was once again eleven years old, awestruck.
That summer my Uncle Benny decided to take me and my cousin Eugene to the Smithsonian. Benny always drove at least 50 miles over the speed limit. We sailed across the 14th Street Bridge, the Potomac below a gray-blue blur. I was going to see birds!
As a country girl, I loved all nature, but especially birds. The museum was my first dose of real science. As we approached the heavy brass-plated doors, I realized I was entering a new world. It had a sheen, this world, of people casually museum-hopping, of buses trundling along the city streets and kids playing on the grassy Mall like it was their own private back yard.
Eugene sped off to the dinosaurs. I headed for the Hall of Birds, entering yet another world. Science nature was very different from half-wild-in-the-woods nature. Eugene and my uncle covered the entire museum while I was still entranced in the Hall of Birds. In the gift shop, I bought a ten-cent postcard of a white-throated sparrow. Then it was time to hydroplane back across the 14th Street Bridge, leave city world behind.
Donna and I snapped pictures of the elephant. My focus was on the small birds “flitting” around the elephant’s habitat. I’d never noticed them before. Were those little birds there when I was eleven?
We went downstairs. The Hall of Birds with the elaborate dioramas I remembered had been reduced to three display cases of birds in the D.C. region. Around the corner we found the passenger pigeon exhibit. I gazed at Martha, still dead after all these years, her world vanished entirely because it collided with ours.
The museum cafeteria teemed with high school students. I watched them, comfortable in their own sheen, and was reminded of my own high school days when I was, as Pollack said in her piece, “embarrassingly unlike the kids into whose houses [I] longingly peered while watching TV.” I was like those little birds orbiting the elephant in the rotunda.
Suddenly I was seventeen again. My senior English teacher, who detected a spark in me, pressed John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman into my hands. The book bored me but I didn’t want her to think I was too dumb to understand it. I kept her copy so long she had to ask for it back and that made me feel even worse.
Miss Boyd knew I had no money for college, but her sorority sponsored students for scholarships. She invited me to her apartment for tea one Sunday afternoon to meet her sorority sisters.
I can still picture Miss Boyd’s apartment, small but nicely furnished, a maple desk, bookcases. No felt cardinal magnets clung to her refrigerator, no cardboard autumn scene hung above her sofa.
I recall what I wore, a dropped-waist floral print my mother made me in tenth grade. I have hazy impressions of well-dressed women, tea being poured, appetizers that weren’t of the cream-cheese-on-Ritz-crackers variety being passed. I felt drab as a sparrow, too shy to speak, too clumsy to sip from a china cup.
But my memories aren’t real.
I never went to Miss Boyd’s for tea. I couldn’t. Her world—one of literature and tea and sorority sisters—was too different from mine. I worried about going so much I imagined I actually did go.
In “The World of the Story,” Pollack says: “Most of us grow up assuming that everyone lives the way we live. Once we realize that the culture to which we belong is considered marginal or exotic, we often grow ashamed.”
I made some lame excuse about not going to the tea, miserable because I’d disappointed the only teacher who had ever cared about me, who offered a step up out of my world. I did make it out, and eventually became a card-carrying member in several other worlds, but it wasn’t easy, doing it my way. As Pollack eloquently states at the end of her piece:
We endure exiles and migrations. We cross from room to room, from house to house, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from school to school, from job to job, from family to family . . . all the while experiencing the pull and tug of conflicting rituals and beliefs. If mapping such journeys isn’t an essential part of writing, I don’t know what is.
I have the ability to shift between different communities. I speak the language, am skilled in the rituals, and share those experiences with my readers.
Donna and I hit three museums on our trip. Aiming for the earliest train back, we were swept along by the tide of commuters. “We’re just like city girls!” Donna said. And we were. We’d successfully navigated that world and could return whenever we wanted.
We chatted all the way to the station in Fredericksburg, daylight when we left, dark when we arrived. Donna’s husband was waiting for us. We climbed into the van, still talking, city air still clinging to us, glad to be home.