Why I’ll Never Be Annie Dillard, Part I

Posted November 23rd, 2014 by Candice

resized suzanne cover

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:

From Blue Ridge Mountains

From Blue Ridge Mountains

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.

resized suzanne drawingNature 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