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Dillard: Extravagance and Exuberance

June 20, 2010

You might remember that Thoreau concludes Walden with a meditation on the word “extravagance”: fearing that his expression may not be extravagant enough, reminding readers that extra/vagance connotes wandering without. And thus the cow who jumps the fence is more extravagant than the wild buffalo, in Thoreau’s view.  Such extravagance, then, is not at odds with his emphasis on simple living–or it is only ironically so: explore your neighborhood that is also the world.

Annie Dillard inherits this imperative from Thoreau and, it seems to me, puts it to work in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the book in which “Fecundity” is a chapter. “I am no scientist,” she writes; “I explore the neighborhood.” One of the confluences of Walden and Tinker Creek that I have been tracking and want to meditate further with you, is the appearance of the word extravagant and its variations in her book. By my accounting, no less than 10 times. I can’t say all that it means for her, why she views nature as extravagant–this is a question you might take up as you read as well. However, I can say that there is a connection between her vision of nature’s extravagance, so fervently described in the book, and the stylistic vision of her writing. Her writing, one could say, is appropriately extravagant.

In matters of style, it might be more helpful to say that her style is exuberant–or more familiar to describe her writing and her vision and even her personality in terms of exuberance. Several images come to mind from the archive of Dillard memories that I have and (still) bring to her books when I read her. The first: her essay (collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk) titled “Living Like Weasels.” She describes an encounter with a weasel (think Thoreau and his woodchuck?) in which she locks eyes and meditates exuberantly, extravagantly, on the weasels wonderful instinct for this kind of fixed attention. The essay, wonderfully brief and fixed in its attention (and, as we often get with Dillard, equally humorous and serious) becomes its own demonstration. She is writing like a weasel. The second image of exuberance: a teacher of mine described Dillard’s presence at a reading she had gone to; Dillard, a notorious chain smoker and fiendish coffee drinker–apparently doing both during the reading. We can feel such exuberance even in her lines–and in fact, in her book The Writing Life, she describes such habits of writing. She  writes about the act of writing being a practice of spending all that one has, nothing to be saved for later. A third image of this notion of spending one’s passion comes from her autobiography, An American Childhood. Among the many scenes where we see this lesson of exuberance from her childhood, one stands out to me. She describes an incident where she and a group of friends are caught throwing snowballs at a passing car. The driver chases them wildly on foot for what seems like miles. She absolutely loves the extravagance of this act–a man in a suit chasing kids madly through the snow. For her, it is an act of passion, an act of exuberance without regard to an end.

I am not sure, entirely, where to go with this. Again, a question I will be asking, and perhaps asking us to try to make some sense of before we leave Dillard behind. But for now, notice the etymology of exuberance (borrowed from wiktionary): From Latin exuberare (“‘to grow thickly, to abound’”); from ex (“‘out’”), and uber (“‘udder’”), and originally would have referred to a cow or she-goat which was making so much milk that it naturally dripped or sprayed from the udder.

This brings Thoreau’s cow back into view. Extravagance, as he writes, is a question of how one is yarded. There is something of Dillard’s nature here as well: its exuberance located in a familiar place, if only we would see it.

Wendell Berry emphasizes living in a place, being familiar with it. Perhaps not to the point of Dillard’s extravagance, but maybe we could see his argument that respecting the land is like marrying your sweetheart as a kind of exuberance that he feels we need. Here is a blog I posted on Berry last year.

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