Birding with Annie Dillard

This is not merely wishful thinking.

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.

This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.

It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift…

I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:


For nature does reveal as well as conceal: Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.  They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged…

Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:


How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.

I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:

Pelican in serenity

Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:

Pelican Flying Away

And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:

Distant finding

As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!

GB Fly away

GBH Fly 2

It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.

Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.

Yes, a better camera.



Saturday Snapshot May 31: After the Rain

Ever since I first read Annie Dillard, I’d wanted to see Puget Sound. But after all these years, I’ve been firmly rooted in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. My neck of the woods is a boreal forest. So, I’m more at home with spruce trees than sandy beaches. Puget Sound will have to remain on my bucket list.

All through winter, spruce and pines are sustenance, the bulwark and shelter for birds and small creatures that stay behind, and me.

After two days of spring rain, I ventured out just when it broke clear slightly, and was mesmerized by the greens. From among the hardy spruce, the aspens burst out to embrace spring.


Walking into the green Ripple Effects



The tall, slender trunks, each a natural canvas




Colours and textures wrapped around


Nature's canvas


and moss as paints.


Moss on branch


Moss on tree stump


Nature’s artwork

Moss on tree trunk


Moss or fungus? No matter. Here’s life

Moss, Fungi, or Ivory?


Monet in Nature



And I couldn’t resist the capture, even though just a common sparrow, obscure, blocked by a branch:



Nature’s Artist at work in Annie Dillard’s Puget Sound as well as my Boreal Forest. Her descriptions are strikingly close to what I had experienced.

“I see a hundred insects moving across the air, rising and falling. Chipped notes of birdsong descend from the trees, tuneful and broken; the notes pile about me like leaves.”


Despite geographical distances and variance in environs, her words resonate:

“Time and space are in touch with the Absolute at base.”

– Annie Dillard, Holy The Firm


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads. CLCIK HERE to see what others have posted.

 Photos in this post taken by Arti of Ripple Effects

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The Maytrees by Annie Dillard: Book Review

To celebrate National Poetry Month, I am reviewing Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees.  That’s right.  For Annie Dillard, even her novel reads like poetry.  Consider these lines:

“Behind his head, color spread up sky.  In the act of diving, Orion, rigid, shoulder-first like a man falling, began to dissolve.  Then even the zenith and western stars paled and gulls squawked.”

Toby Maytree came home to Provincetown, Cape Cod, after the Second World War and met Lou Bigelow.  They soon fell in love and married, their lives bound by nature.

“His wife, Lou Maytree, rarely spoke.  She painted a bit on canvas and linen now lost.  They acted in only two small events–three, if love counts.  Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss, and death.  That is the joy of them.”

Toby and Lou Maytree live a bohemian life. Toby works enough as a carpenter to support his real pleasure, poetry writing; Lou paints, rendering obsolete her MIT architecture degree.

“For a long time they owned no car, no television when that came in, no insurance, no savings.  Once a week they heard world news on the radio. They supported striking coal miners’ families with cash.  They loved their son, Pete, their only child.  Between them they read about three hundred books a year.  He read for facts, she for transport.  Nothing about them was rich except their days swollen with time.”

Can life, or love, be any simpler for any married couple?   Life in Cape Cod is idyllic for the Maytrees, and for a long while, time almost stood still.  Until, a third person, their long-time mutual friend Deary, came between them. Anticipating the ambivalence of guilt and desire, Toby and Deary secretly plans a move away to Maine, leaving Lou to raise Pete alone in Provincetown. 

“We bound ourselves to the fickle, changing, and dying as if they were rock.”

Dillard follows the Maytrees’ lives together, apart, and together again years later under very peculiar circumstances.  She uses condensed and poetic language to describe the subtle beauty of love, the reality of human frailty, the numbing of separation, and the inevitability of death.  Against the backdrop of nature, and a web of characters in the Maytrees’ lives, the author explores the power of forgiveness, the sharing of human responsibility, the acceptance of the human condition, and the preparation for death.  Love can still triumph despite failings, and yet, she also queries, what exactly, is love.

For most of the novel, Dillard displays fully her expertise: meditative nature writing, her thoughts touching the realms of science, literature, anthropology, religion, and philosophy. I do not pretend that I fully comprehend all that Dillard writes.  Eudora Welty in her 1974 New York Times review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek admitted that: “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.”  Who am I to say I have understood all that Dillard has written here in The Maytrees. It may help if you are well-versed in Keats, Kafka, and Wittgenstein.  But often it is in the language.  Occassionally, her condensed language has left me cold and clueless.  However, it is also her language that appeals to me.  Amidst the ambiguity, I have appreciated the mesmerizing power of her poetic sense.

“Later he stood on the foredune’s lip and looked at the stars over the ocean.  A wider life breathed in him, and things’ rims stirred and reared back.  Only the lover sees what is real, he thought.  Only the lover sees the beloved truly, inwardly.  Far from being blind, love alone can see.  Watching the sky now, and forever after, doubled his world.  He felt he saw through Lou’s eyes as an Aztec priest, having flayed an enemy, donned the skin.  Or somewhat less so.”

At the end, death wraps up a life and a narrative. Surprisingly, Dillard describes it in a prosaic and matter-of-fact manner. And yet, the images are vivid, and the humanity shines through.  This is the genius of Annie Dillard. The Maytrees is a gem of a story; it gives and demands much. It may need some effort to plough through, but well worth the time. And like poetry, you would want to go back and savor it again.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Harper Collins, 2007.  224 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples