Cheryl Pappas: Learning To See Again, with Annie Dillard

If you are like me and you check your smartphone about 80 times a day, then you, too, might need a gentle reminder that there is an unseen universe in the woods down the street from your house. Annie Dillard’s 1974 essay “Seeing” has much to teach us, not only about looking up from your phone and noticing the natural world but also about how we as writers can use language that keeps the reader’s attention.

In the beginning of her essay, Dillard writes of the wisdom of cultivating a “healthy poverty”—of finding treasure in small things, whether it be a found penny or the sighting of “a tremulous ripple thrill on the water” or a “muskrat kit paddling from its den.” This sets up the discourse for the rest of the essay, in which we learn how she stalks for such treasures in nature and how she values different ways of seeing.

For Dillard, there are two ways to see. The first is to stay alert and hungry for a thrilling sight, such as “antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves.” “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open,” she writes. The goal is to appreciate every detail and to name what she sees. The second way is to unfocus her eyes—to deliberately relax her vision—in the hopes of seeing something deeper. She does this one summer night when she’s at Tinker Creek, trying to catch a glimpse of at least one shiner fish as it pops out of the water, its silvery skin flashing with light. She notices that this rarely seen display was “always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared.” But when she blurred her eyes, she “saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time.” This kind of seeing is spiritual, poetic. As her vision is elevated, the language she uses to describe the experience is elevated to poetry. “Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed in air like light . . . I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.” The sentences and then the phrases become progressively shorter, as if her language were breaking up into pieces. It’s as if she’d been transformed into a particle.

I have always wondered—or, more honestly, I used to wonder—what it is like for people who were once blind to gain sight. Is it a shock to the system? Dillard, it turns out, is also fascinated by how the newly sighted experience the world, and she greedily wants to see it through their eyes—just to try it. She recounts the reactions of the formerly blind, as recorded in Marius von Senden’s book Space and Sight: “[T]he newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches.” In other words, every form is flat and has the same value, whether near or far. She speaks of a little girl who is astonished by the world, and when the girl visits a garden, she “‘stands speechless” in front of a tree, which she “only names on taking hold of it,” describing it as “‘the tree with the lights in it.’” After Dillard finishes the book, she sees the color-patches, too, and treasures this new vision. But she cannot keep looking this way: “I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.”

Seeing is not easy. Dillard writes that seeing is an effort that is “really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order.” Here, toward the end of the essay, she has emphasized the “vision” in “visionary.” She is a spiritual seeker, who knows that “although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought,” and “although [illumination] . . . comes to those who wait for it, it is always . . . a gift and a total surprise.” Dillard ends her essay with such an ecstatic, surprising vision: she sees a tree “with lights in it” at her own Tinker Creek: “I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.” After its lights die out and normal vision returns, she tells us that “the vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

What a gift, indeed! Dillard’s essay sheds light on how sheltered my sight has become. My poverty, it seems, is the unhealthy kind. When my vision gets unfocused, it’s because I’ve been looking at the screen too long, not because I’m making a mystical connection to the universe. As a child, I remember, I would often wander alone in the woods behind our house to look for a clearing in the forest, to feel the scaly bark of a birch tree, to touch the silky skin of the forbidden ladyslipper. I was, like Dillard, looking for—and waiting for—treasure and surprise, but with a childlike wonder. Which is why her essay strikes such a deep chord with me, a chord that is mournful, too, because I’m not sure how often I’ll take such walks anymore. It’s been years. But now, at least, if I do, I have her visionary words to accompany me.

What can Dillard teach us about writing? To start, as every great writer does, Dillard gives us intricate details: “Where Tinker Creek flows under the sycamore log bridge to the tear-shaped island, it is slow and shallow, fringed thinly in cattail marsh.” It’s not just a log, but a sycamore log; not just an island, but a tear-shaped one. And when lying on her bed after a long walk, she notes that she’s “spinning 836 miles an hour round the earth’s axis.” As political discourse by this country’s leaders becomes sodden with vagueness, writers would do well to name everything, with accuracy and specificity. Dillard’s writing is flush with facts, and that is why it is intellectually so satisfying to read her work, especially now.

But facts alone are ultimately unsatisfying; we could all learn so much from her poetic voice. In his incomparable anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate notes in his introduction to “Seeing” that Diallard first trained as a poet before turning to essays. Her use of imagery makes this clear: she describes water turtles as “smooth as beans,” two words that make smooth sounds. We see it in her startling phrases, such as the one mentioned above, “I couldn’t unpeach the peaches” and in such sentences as “Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” Her sentences have a rhythm that beautifully go beyond the declarative structure, like this one, in which she describes repeatedly watching groups of red-tipped blackbirds rush from an Osage orange tree: “Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real diehards, appeared, spread, and vanished.” She could have set off the phrase “the real diehards” by em-dashes, but that would have been too emphatic; instead, she knows that the commas alone are enough to give us a landing to rest on before the precipitous “appeared, spread, and vanished.”

Her sentences move like a stream and then, all of a sudden, the water hits a rock. Like this: “It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see. Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” The line “But I can’t see” is one of those rocks in the stream. We teach the reader to pay attention by always keeping the language awake.

Conversely, but equally moving, is how much repetition there is in the essay. Within the span of two pages, she writes “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open”; “I still try to keep my eyes open”; and “One more reason to keep my eyes open.” What is she doing here? She is underscoring her repetitive process of looking by repeating the idea.

We could also steal Dillard’s technique of moving from micro to macro. In the same paragraph in which she writes of seeing two million light-years to the Andromeda galaxy, she tells us of how she took in some amoebae from the creek as pets, which look like “chips of sky in the bowl.” The effect of such a range is that it awakens our imagination. It follows William Blake’s directive: “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

Dillard could not have known when she wrote this essay how many of us would need a vivid reminder of the value of looking for this kind of treasure in the world. For me, my smartphone has become a talisman; I am none the richer. It will not help me become a better writer. Dillard offers me a map to go by, starting with my own backyard.

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Cheryl Pappas’s work has most recently appeared in Tin House and Mulberry Fork Review. She lives in Boston and is an editor at the Harvard Art Museums. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. Her website is cherylpappas.net.

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