Baggy and Thin

Susan Eilenberg

  • The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
    Hesperus, 185 pp, £12.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84391 710 6

Patience has been the matter of Annie Dillard’s writing for thirty years and more: patience and watchfulness and humility, together with a good deal of meditation (some of it conducted while crouched ‘mute as a photographic plate’, waiting for some small stalked creature to put aside its alarm and show itself on a chilly mudbank or in midgey thickets in Virginia or the Pacific Northwest) on what the watching and the waiting are good for. She has seen coots and weasels and parasitic wasps, a ‘pale froth’ of baby spiders, a muskrat eating a weed with the sound of ‘somebody eating celery sticks’, furry moths, hunting beetles, turtle eggs, copperheads, sharks; also steers walking on water ‘like miracle itself, complete with miracle’s nonchalance’, and

thousands of spirits – spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time – thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground. Only their motion was clear (clockwise, if you insist); that, and their beauty unspeakable.

Each creature always being itself and nothing other than itself (‘I never saw a tree that was no tree in particular’), the effect of the whole is as the uttering of ‘infinite particulars, each overlapping and lone, like a hundred hills of hounds all giving tongue’. In Dillard’s nature writings (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, portions of An American Childhood) the butterfly is not an anonymous member of an order within the class Insecta but a particular creature who, having had the particularly bad luck to have emerged from its chrysalis in a schoolteacher’s glass jar and so lost the chance to unfurl its wings while they were still capable of unfurling, nevertheless set off heaving the ‘golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been’ and ‘crawling with what seemed wonderful vigour, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born’; the bug is not an indistinguishable member of that class of being of which God was supposed to have been inordinately fond but a particular rhinoceros beetle that, inexpertly impaled in a particular forgotten cigar box in a particular attic, she rediscovers a month later still ‘crawling on its pin’, probably dehydrated, she guesses, since the attic was hot. The particulars matter also in the case of a chicken: ‘He pulled his extravagant neck to its maximum length, hauled himself high on his legs, stretched his beak as if he were gagging, screamed, and blinked. It was a ruckus.’ And the particulars matter in the death of a particular small green frog:

He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump.

He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag began to sink.

The reader, lazy in her armchair, reads on or puts the book down or flips to the next chapter or the one after that: if one passage of natural history grows wearying or worrisome or outright horrifying, the next will surely amuse. The sheer abundance of observation and instruction (‘Cracked arsenic smells like garlic’; ‘Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day’) seems to lessen the necessity of attending to any given detail. The detail matters, but not as we might expect.

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