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Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Dread Hootenanny

From last spring, the review I wrote for the New York TImes Book Review of Annie Dillard's valedictory essay collection, The Abundance, which I've added to the reading list for a graduate nonfiction course I'll be teaching this fall.
Annie Dillard’s long career as a daredevil nonfiction aerialist began in October 1972, on a camping trip to the coast of Maine. She tells the story in the afterword to the 25th-anniversary edition of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Twenty-seven years old, somewhere between her home in the suburban foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Maine’s Acadia National Park, she’d picked up a “nature book” by a writer whose previous book she’d admired. His latest effort was a torpid disappointment. Wondering how fireflies make their light, the author hadn’t troubled himself to find out. Dillard, who had been troubling herself and finding things out since childhood, knew the answer to this entomological mystery: Fireflies possess a pair of substances with excellent names, luciferin and luciferase, that are crucial to their conversion of chemical energy to light. Far less explicable to her than the light of fireflies was the dimming of an author’s once-bright mind. “What on earth,” Dillard asked herself, “had happened to this man?” Here, too, she was prepared to hazard an answer: “Decades had happened, that was all.” She resolved to write about the world before she wearied of it, or lost her nerve.
Now that decades have happened to her, I wish I could travel back in time to deliver to that 27-year-old camper on the coast of Maine some reassuring news: On the page at least, nerve is something she would never run short of. As evidence, I’d present her with my review copy of “The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.” In what feels like a valedictory collection, Dillard has ­selected, rearranged and in some cases retitled and revised 22 of the best essays she’s written over the last 40 years, curating what amounts to a retrospective exhibit of her own ­career. The time for a Dillard retrospective seems right. As Geoff Dyer notes in his foreword, the sort of “genre-resistant ­nonfiction” whose possibilities Dillard began scouting out in the early 1970s is now a recognized genre enjoying a vogue. Many readers and writers, Dyer among them, have followed her into those ­borderlands.
Dillard was a pioneer in another sense, daring at age 27 to nominate herself for membership in the explorers’ club of American letters whose most famous exemplars — Thoreau, Muir, Abbey — were men. Last year, profiling her in The Atlantic, Diana Saverin shared a savory quotation from the journals Dillard kept while struggling to write the book that would become “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “It’s impossible to imagine another situation where you can’t write a book ’cause you weren’t born with a penis. Except maybe ‘Life With My Penis.’ ” (If you can almost hear a rim shot following that punch line, there are good reasons, divulged in one of the essays included here, “Jokes.”)

The rest of the review is here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of Pond Scum, Even If It Dismays Dinner Hosts

One of my favorite science writers, Kathryn Schulz, published a take-down of Thoreau in The New Yorker. Funny title: "Pond Scum." It's smart and entertaining but also, I think, an unfortunate example of willful misreading that gets Thoreau wrong in pretty much every way. When The New Republic asked if I cared to respond, I did. An excerpt:
Perhaps the most curiously contrary charge Schulz levels against Thoreau is incuriosity. Provincial, yes—in his travels. In his reading, he was cosmopolitan. But incurious?  The man was endlessly investigating phenomena both natural and human. On his provincial travels in Concord but also to Cape Cod and Maine, he was endlessly interviewing strangers—lumberjacks, oystermen, farmers. He romanticized Native Americans as noble savages, and exoticized them, representing the broken English of those he met phonetically in ways that now make us cringe, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he also made a point of meeting them,  interviewing them, traveling with them, and he tried to learn of and from them on his long walks.
The data he collected at Walden pond is still used by climate scientists, and he sent some 900 different plant specimens he’d collected, as well as animals, to the Swiss-born Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz. My own favorite biographical vignette about Thoreau is this one, from an essay by Guy Davenport: The Thoreau who befriended Agassiz, Davenport writes, “was a scientist, the pioneer ecologist, one of the few men in America with whom [Agassiz] could talk, as on an occasion when the two went exhaustively into the mating of turtles, to the dismay of their host for dinner, Emerson.”
Curiosity is what drew Thoreau to the shipwreck he writes about in Cape Cod, Exhibit A in Schulz’s indictment. Death was yet another phenomenon he sought to understand by studying it up close. Quoting one passage out of the many paragraphs Thoreau devotes to the seaside carnage he witnessed, Schulz pegs him as a heartless bastard, a sort of Transcendental sociopath, indifferent to suffering. “On the whole,” that passage begins, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more.” He’s describing here a paradox that we’ve all surely experienced: when the sufferings of strangers multiply, they have a way of growing abstract in our imaginations, as do the feelings they elicit, hence the numbed indifference casualty statistics can induce, whereas the suffering of a single individual can move us easily to outrage or tears. We saw this paradox illustrated last September by a photo of another drowned refugee who died seeking sanctuary, Syrian rather than Irish this time, a three-year-old, Aylan Kurdi, on the Greek island of Kos rather than on Cape Cod.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Constellation Fallen to Earth: Matthew Power


Matthew Power, 1974-2014
My remembrance of Matt is here, on the Harper's web site. The best part of it is here:

"At the open window the equatorial darkness falls like a curtain, and across the creek the mountain of the dumpsite rears black beneath a net of stars. Against the silhouette of the garbage mountain, a faint line of lights works its way upward. They are the homemade headlamps of the night shift tracing their way up the pile. Reaching the top, they spread themselves out, shining their lights on the shifting ground to begin their search. Beneath the wide night sky those tiny human sparks split and rearrange, like a constellation fallen to earth, as if uncertain of what hopeful legend they are meant to invoke." 

-Matthew Power, "The Magic Mountain" (Harper's, 2006)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

At Night Through Lighted Windows


As a coda to my fiction course at Wayne State, I asked students to post one paragraph they admire to our course web site—a paragraph from any work of fiction, on the syllabus or not. I made myself do the same. Here's the one I chose, from Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.
I do not think Sylvie was merely reticent. It is, as she said, difficult to describe someone, since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows. Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers. They could not see us watching, of course, because by five-thirty on a winter day the landscape had disappeared, and they would have seen their own depthless images on the black glass, if they had looked, and not the black trees and the black houses, or the slender black bridge and the dim blue expanse of the lake. Some of them probably did not know what it was the train approached so cautiously. Once, Lucille and I walked beside the train to the shore. There had been a freezing rain that glazed the snow with a crust of ice, and we found that, when the sun went down, the crust was thick enough for us to walk on. So we followed the train at a distance of twenty feet or so, falling now and then because the glazed snow swelled and sank in dunes, and the tops of bushes and fence posts rose out of it in places where we did not expect them to be. But by crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roofs of sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of the window of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face. She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat. The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout. When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her window sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge. "We could walk across the lake," I said. The thought was terrible. "It's too cold," Lucille replied. So she was gone. Yet I remember her neither less nor differently than I remember others I have known better, and indeed I dream of her, and the dream is very like the event itself, except that in the dream the bridge pilings do not tremble so perilously under the weight of the train.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Minor Bummer of the Day


Minor bummer of the day: I filled a big paper Yard&Lawn bag with frost-bitten apples and frosty leaves. Frost-bitten apples weigh more than you'd think. I hoisted it, and bear-hugged it, that bag. Filling it had given me a sense of accomplishment. So had hoisting it. ACE, the bag said, and I thought, ACE. Holding it, however, did not give me a sense of accomplishment. It gave me a slippery sense of dropping it. I staggered forth up the asphalt drive. Twice I had to stop and rest and hoist again, and upon attaining the curb, I let it fall, and when it met the ground, it split, as if the paper had been unzipped, and out spilled frosty innards--apples, leaves. Here ends the minor bummer of the day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Gift of Seeing What's There

From Robert Hass's "An Oak Grove," which appears in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World:
One of the gifts people who teach can give to students is a sense of complexity, because desire tends to simplify what it sees. We are usually, left to ourselves, egrets fishing through our smeared reflections. Another thing teachers can give them is the gift of seeing what’s there. They can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination, and description and give them concepts of enormous power to refine and organize their seeing. Seeing what’s there usually requires patient observation and the acquisition of particular skills and disciplines—not that those things guarantee our seeing clearly or freshly. Often in both the arts and the sciences, we see what’s there in a flash, but it has taken us hours or years of patient labor to get there and then to name what we have seen.