Earlier this month, in a modest White House ceremony, the president of the United States looped a lovely medal around the neck of Annie Dillard as thanks for her 40 years of writing, which often deals with the woods and waterways just beyond her doorstep.
Some other authors got medals, too, including horror writer Stephen King and Larry McMurtry, famous for his novels of the American West. Despite such distinguished honorees, the ceremony wasn’t mentioned on the evening news I watched that day. The world was too focused on war, drought and primary politics to pay much attention.
Even so, it’s good for the nation’s commander-in-chief to recognize a few writers each year, as successive presidents have done for years now.
The best writers practice the patient art of thinking long and hard about what they’re going to say before they say it. Honoring them is a nice corrective to the current fetish for spontaneity, in which political figures who say the first thing that pops into their hollow heads are celebrated for their “authenticity,” whatever that means.
Dillard gained fame in 1975 when she won a Pulitzer Prize for “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a book about what she saw on regular walks in the wild places near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. By the time I entered college a decade later, Dillard’s prose had worked its way into English classes as an example of how to write well. Her spare sentences have a simplicity and directness that we like to think of as distinctly American — plain talk in the Hemingway tradition.
But Dillard’s books are never as simple as they first appear. What she sees on her walks is messy and complicated, just like life. She admires the intensity of a weasel she spots, but understands that his fierce attention is a deadly weapon, too.
I especially like “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” Dillard’s 1982 collection of nature writings. The title comes from her connection with a neighbor, “a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk.” She concedes that the idea is a profoundly odd one, but it points to a larger truth. In a real sense, we look to landscapes to tell us something, which is why here in Louisiana, so long celebrated as a sportsman’s paradise, so many of us spend so much time outdoors.
If we don’t bother to pay attention to creation, adds Dillard, the “show would play to an empty house, as do all those falling stars which fall in the daytime. That is why I take walks: to keep an eye on things.”
I hadn’t thought of Dillard in a while, but news of her award sent me back to the living room shelf to retrieve her books.
I’ve been rereading them as autumn arrives, and cool mornings call me to do my own walking, my own witnessing, my own vigils for the falling stars that no one wants to miss.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.