The eccentric brilliance of Annie Dillard, a latter-day Thoreau

In Dillard’s hands, sand is moulded into an entire world.

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As well as two volumes of poetry and two novels, Annie Dillard is the author of eight works of narrative non-fiction that have made her a star in the American literary firmament for the past four decades. Yet on this side of the Atlantic she is probably best known for a single, early Pulitzer Prize-winner, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), published when she was 29 years old.

That book describes her daily explorations of the natural environment, but especially the waterway of the title, and all its wild inhabitants, which were close to her home in Roanoke, Virginia. For this reason Dillard has often been viewed as a nature writer. Yet, as Geoff Dyer points out in an excellent introductory essay to this book, she is as unclassifiable an author as her work in non-fiction is genre-defying. The new publication includes material from seven of the others – Dyer calls it a “reframing or a rehang of much-loved work” – and functions as a glorious retrospective, but also as a perfect taster of Dillard’s authorial range.

Although she may not be a nature ­writer, there is something consistently Thoreauvian in her approach (apparently, at university she wrote a thesis on Walden). One similarity is her forensically detailed, science-inflected investigation of everyday life, married to a burning engagement with her inner reactions to these conventionally mundane experiences. One of the longest and most moving pieces in The Abundance is on a subject no more elevated than sand.

In Dillard’s hands, sand is moulded into an entire world. We learn, for instance, that it takes a million years for a river to transport a single grain a hundred miles downstream; that more sand is made by lichens than by seas or oceans; that every second, about a billion sharp new fragments of sand are manufactured somewhere on Earth.

As she dilates on her theme, Dillard strays into the mysteries of aerial dust, which is no less extraordinary. (Did you know that the Mexico City which Cortés encountered is now buried under 30 feet of wind-blown detritus, some of which is made of spiders’ legs?) Along the way she also offers us a tender biographical study of the French Jesuit archaeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the man who discovered Peking Man buried in a lode of Chinese sand. Somehow all those eclectic and wildly disparate threads are plaited together and reconciled in Dillard’s vast imagination.

There is another parallel with Thoreau that has to do with her paradoxical style of writing. Her prose is clear and precise, but also bears a marked penchant for surprising the reader with humour or contradiction. In a piece about her childhood she writes: “I got in trouble throwing snowballs and have seldom been happier since.” In another passage she suggests: “Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain.”

In a famed essay from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, reproduced here as “Seeing”, she describes how, as a child, she loved to hide pennies and draw arrows to them so that complete strangers would be directed to gifts of pure providence. Dillard’s moral conclusion to her tale is that “if you cultivate a healthy poverty . . . you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days”.

The part of Dillard that is entirely her own and unlike any other modern non-fiction writer is her tendency to flights of ecstatic, even visionary incomprehensibility. “Time is enough,” she writes in a piece called “Newborn and Salted”,

more than enough, and matter multiple and given. The god of today is a child, a baby new and filling the house, remarkable here in the flesh. He is day. He thrives in a cup of wind, landlocked and thrashing. He unrolls, revealing his shape an edge at a time . . .

Seldom is such celebrated writing referred to as “bonkers”. Yet bonkers it occasionally seems. Even a committed fan such as Geoff Dyer uses words in connection with Dillard such as “scatty” and “demented”. There is no shame, I hope, in admitting that with Dillard’s work, even among her most transcendent passages, one is sometimes baffled by the meaning. It is possibly this tendency towards obscurity that explains why she has remained an acquired taste and has only a cult status in Britain.

One senses that barely contained within a frame of relentlessly scientific inquiry and learning is a mind predisposed to a form of mysticism (in her books, God and religion are invoked as frequently as any other theme). However, in these moments of rapturous vision, one is still in the presence of a person who writes it as she sees it. Mysticism, in short, is as much a part of her daily life as sand and dust.

When she writes of Teilhard de Chardin that for him the material world “dissolves at the edges and grows translucent”, it seems that she is also writing very much about herself.

The Abundance by Annie Dillard is published by Canongate (304pp, £14.99)

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue