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

12 Responses to “Why I’ll Never Be Annie Dillard, Part I”

  1. When I read the Emily of New Moon books I was inspired by the adventures Emily and her friends had: Being snowed in and camping in an abandoned home; Sleeping atop hay in the great outdoors. Living with a romantic view I wanted to live like that. But I couldn’t see how that could be done. It seemed that Emily lived in a different time. I don’t doubt the danger was there for youngsters 100 years ago. But we now live in a time where a parent in their right mind wouldn’t let there kids go travelling through the wilderness alone like that.
    Sometimes though you just have to break out of your comfort zone. Why not, start small – sleep overnight in your backyard. Who knows, you may just find yourself in that canoe after all.

    • Candice says:

      It’s true, we can’t let our kids go off into the wilderness, but these days, most don’t even go out in their yard, much less exploring.

      We have a gaggle of kids in our cul-de-sac. They play outside, at least, but it’s always in the cul-de-sac, usually on wheels of some sort. Or organized ball games. Nothing *creative.* No discoveries.

      There’s a wonderful article in this month’s Orion magazine (I realize you wouldn’t get it in Australia) about free-range kids. Because today’s kids aren’t like us, they will have to be pushed out the door! But with other kids and grown-ups.

      As for me and the canoe, I had palpitations the one time I got in a kayak, two feet from the dock.

  2. Okay, I’m flummoxed. You already do exactly what you say you long to do. Your blog and photographs of once-loved spaces is indeed a nature field journal! Just because the robin’s nest is outside your window, doesn’t make it any less natural! In fact, so many of your observations, of kudzu taking things over, or well-loved diners where you hide out to write, feel extremely Thoreau-ish (new word). I think you need to reassess! Remember Thoreau wrote about where he lived too – which really wasn’t that far away from society. He just made it feel so. You do too, but I would argue, you make these lost places and things feel very much a part of MY society. Hugs, e

    • Candice says:

      Points well taken! I *am* reassessing, but my version of being a naturalist/artist/writer seems very tame. The armchair naturalist, that’s me. I wish I had taken more risks when I was younger and could afford to.

      I would love to keep an illustrated nature journal, but I write one page and quit. I’d be happy to keep a journal illustrated with photos, but you will see in Part II of this post how hard that is with limited skills.

      I have been thinking about changing the “format” of this blog for some time. Less about nature or me or life. But I can’t think of anything else to write . . . and I will keep blogging anyway.

  3. Donna says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your friend Elizabeth. You revere nature in the most sincere way of anyone I know. Perhaps it is simply a part of your nature to feel deeply and long for – places gone or almost gone, animals nearly extinct, and those who do not fit in. And thank goodness this is so.

    As for the “shackles of habit,” this is only a problem if our habits are unhealthy or unwise. A great weight of sadness is only one perspective . . . an alternate view would be a lifetime of learning.

    • Candice says:

      Lifetime of Learning! I’m stealing that, Miss Donna! I’m not ready to lay down across the railroad tracks yet, but I do feel the weight of years and losses, as I do at the end of every year. It’s in my nature to live in the past–sometimes good for my work, but not always.

      I stopped in the middle of my run today to watch a string of geese, to see them change leaders, an effortless shift among community members, no egos involved, teamwork for the good of the species. A small lesson learned.

  4. I smiled at this blog title. But as Elizabeth says, you do so much of this. I love the wild girls in your books and the wild woman of your blog. But I can understand the yearning — but have more of your husband settling down his coffee cup in me. Still… that Hannah Hinchman! That book looks fantastic. But I think I’ll be able just to read her, not be her.

    and I’m sorry about the weight of sadness. Though I love your image above about the geese, the turns of things.

    • Candice says:

      Jeannine, Hannah Hinchman is your kind of gal. She lives out West and has written and illustrated a book about trips into the Rockies with her dog. She’s done another book on illustrated nature journals, too. I have huge admiration for these women who just climb mountains and canoe in dark swamps to find out what’s there, not so much to find who they are. Which was missing from Cheryl Strayed’s *Wild,* I think.

      The sadness is seasonal–it will leave in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I have geese and spiders. Those things we all have.

  5. Constance Van Hoven says:

    Come to Montana and let us show you Yellowstone. Preferably in the winter when it is so pristine. But any season is amazing. We’d do the gentlest of hikes and plenty of viewing from the car. I would give my old eye teeth to read what you had to say about it… Under the big sky out here you might feel some of the sadness float away. And I know a couple of ghost towns Frank would love!

    • Candice says:

      You know Frank wants to go to Montana and Yellowstone more than anything. I’d love to go too, to see the wild side of American, those rugged mountains so unlike the ancient curves of the Appalachians. Winter! Oh, Lord, you don’t want my whiny self around in the winter . . . remember how I carried on at Vermont during the winter residencies? Southerners have thin blood! Those ghost towns, though. Very tempting!

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