It’s the end of October, and that means that I’m spending most of my nights sitting in the tin-roofed-shed that houses our bird banding station. A loudspeaker broadcasts the monotonic and musical notes of the Northern Saw-whet Owl and offers a steady drone of white noise. My coworker Maren and I have wide-ranging discussions full of long quiet pauses and startling non-sequiturs. Our conversation reminds me of Savoy and her writings, in a way.
In the chapter “Migrating in a Bordered Land” of her book Trace, Savoy jumps around in physical location—from the National Archives in DC, to Arizona, to the San Pedro River basin, to Fort Huachuca itself. Throughout this, there is a relatively common thread for her discussion, though. She is tracking her history, hunting it almost. She follows her mother and through the land and through the history of people, both her people and others (whether those people are Americans, or African-Americans, or others).
I see Savoy’s task as very autobiographical. I suppose that, as we’ve discussed before, essays may be inherently autobiographical. But I almost feel something of Kaysen in this. It’s a tracking of a history of self and family. It may be more nebulous than Kaysen’s story, but it’s similar. It’s a “where I came from, how did I get here” story, just like Kaysen’s. And like Kaysen, the non-linear discussion reflects this. She’s still putting pieces together, working on her past like a jigsaw puzzle.
“First there was nothing”; the words which Annie Dillard chooses to open her essay “Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos” could not get very much more evocative. In the same sentence, Dillard suggests that nothing is relatable to something more tangible to us “the Pacific”. And so begins the essay that perhaps best illustrates Dillard’s project in Teaching a Stone to Talk.
Dillard spends much of the “Life on the Rocks” section of her book doing what she does best—weaving narratives about her explorations and experiences in nature together with the natural histories of the animals and geological characters in the those narratives and then relating them to bigger world. Even being familiar with Dillard and her propensity for doing this, “Life on the Rocks” is a particularly impressive bit of writing. Perhaps this is partly because, in addition to being excellent example of her characteristic writing techniques, it is also her book in miniature. What I propose is that in Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard is commenting on the reflections—or perhaps, misreflections—of the natural world in what she observes in society.
From a deep discussion of the science of evolution and natural uniqueness of the Galapagos, Dillard turns to a discussion on how human society has corrupted the science of evolution. From the fundamentalist Christians who “of course, still reject Darwinism” to the “even less appealing… social Dawinists”, Dillard devotes a fair amount of time to discussing how society has misread the science of Darwin and an understanding on the fundamentals of natural history as well.
In this book, I think Dillard’s greatest goal is to show the similarities between nature and humanity and also highlight where she sees we seem to have lost sight of our own natural history. In this, “Life on the Rocks” is the epitome of the argument. “The mountains are no more fixed than the stars”, she writes, explaining how everything, from the geology of the earth, to the existence of the species we see around us everyday, to our own thoughts and ideas and societies, are subject to changeability. In placing the discussion of the social Darwinists and their ilk among the narratives of the moveability of life on earth, I think she also stressed the futility of humanity’s own thoughts on the matter. However much we may rail against the turning of the tides, “the very landscapes heave; change burgeons into change”.