Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

"We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place."

I devoured Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, a book of nature essays published in 1982. Her essay “Lenses” is fantastic, as is her essay on experiencing a total eclipse (reprinted in The Atlantic). Dillard has a unique way of writing and describing the world, and this short collection—only 170 pages of essays found in magazines—is humorous and informed, and sometimes, in her words, “nutty.” It’s a style of nature writing that takes the wildness of the world seriously, meditations on journeys, God, the world, living. And her words are arresting: in describing a weasel (“a muscled ribbon”), in Ecuador a captured deer in agony, or an eclipse’s deep shadows (“it was as though an enormous loping god in the sky and reached down and slapped the earth’s face.”)

This line from “In the Jungle” was a favorite:

The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place. We might as well get a feel for the fringes and hollows in which life is lived, for the Amazon basin, which covers half a continent, and for the life that—there, like anywhere else—is always and necessarily lived in detail.” (82)

As is this line from “Lenses”:

Through binoculars I followed the swans, swinging where they flew. All their feathers were white; their eyes were black. Their wingspan was six feet; they were bigger than I was. They flew in unison, one behind the other; they made pass after pass at the pond. I watched them change from white swans in front of the mountain to black swans in front of the sky. In clockwise ellipses they flew, necks long and relaxed, alternatively beating their wide wings and gliding.

What a line. A great illustration on how something that remains the same can shift depending on the context.


  • Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters by Annie Dillard
  • ISBN: 0060150300 (look up with WorldCat or Open Library)
  • Published: 1982
  • Publisher: Harper & Row
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Jason Heppler is a digital humanities developer living in Omaha. More ยป

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