Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Spring Leaves and True Confessions

Considering approximately 97 percent of the books I read are written for children and 99 percent are fiction, I find it a little surprising that one of my very favorite authors is a writer of nonfiction whose books are marketed to adults.

That would be Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of two books I love, An American Childhood and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Ms. Dillard is not only a philosopher and amateur naturalist (in the least amateurish sense of the term), but she is also a wordsmith of breathtaking clarity and beauty. I like the way she looks at the world, how she thinks about it, and most of all how she describes it.

It should tell you a lot about her that she wrote her master's thesis on the significance of Walden Pond in Henry David Thoreau's writing. She eventually married a biographer she met after writing him a fan letter about his book on Thoreau.

But today, I simply want to share with you some of her words from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek because they make me look at trees in a whole new way. And I love trees, maybe even more than I love Annie Dillard's writing.
There's a real power here. It is amazing that trees can turn gravel and bitter salts into these soft-lipped lobes, as if I were to bite down on a granite slab and start to swell, bud, and flower. Trees seem to do their feats so effortlessly. Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. 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. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn't make one. A tree stands there, accumulating deadwood, mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes; it splits, sucks, and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green fringed fling. No person taps this free power; the dynamo in the tulip tree pumps out ever more tulip tree, and it runs on rain and air.

Images: Tulip tree leaves and Tinker Creek.

7 comments:

Elouise82 said...

Beautiful. One of my friends (a professional photographer and lover of nature and beauty) has recommended Annie Dillard to me several times, but I've never actually read anything of hers. After reading this quote, though, I am more determined than ever to find some of her books and soak them in!

Kate Coombs said...

Oh, you should! I will just add that her biography, An American Childhood, is hilarious in this really idionsyncratic way, as well as wonderfully, beautifully written. I often share her snowball story with my high school students. Dillard can make meaning out of ANYTHING, all without being heavy-handed. [Happy sigh!]

Tanya said...

Kate - Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful writing as well as a glimpse into what you read when you read adult books - that could almost be the name of a Raymond Carver book... I am sure that the adult books we read and love inform our tastes when it comes to children's literature, I'm just not sure how.

rockinlibrarian said...

Hmm, maybe you should make a pilgrimage to Annie Dillard's hometown, Pittsburgh! :D Where, incidentally, my grandpap was once in charge of all the city's TREES for decades!

Kate Coombs said...

Tanya--Isn't it gorgeous? Of course, I also read some adult SFF, but I think you're right, however the less obvious connections work.

Amy--I'm there! (Actually, I have family in Philadelphia, so maybe I really will get out that way one of these days...) Rockin' Librarian AND Rockin' Tree Grandpa, huh?

Charlotte said...

I will be forever grateful to my 12th grade English teacher for assigning us Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Ever since reading it, I've been on the lookout for "the tree with lights in it."

Kate Coombs said...

Charlotte--Smart teacher! And what a wonderful quest...