A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?
On Annie Dillard, Living like Weasels
Next week: “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley (1773)
“Living like Weasels” comes on quietly, but it harbors a tornado. I first encountered this text as a teacher not a reader. By that I mean, a colleague Rachel Nelson suggested that we assign this text as part of our co-taught seminar “What does it mean to be human?” and a few weeks later, I dutifully found myself in a classroom, with young people arranged around a large wooden table, our heads bent over our copies, pens aloft, reading aloud. When I looked up a few minutes later, we were a group of humans whose “skulls had split and dropped to our shoulders.”
There is a question that gets asked over and over in American literature, which is: how should I live? What do I do with my “one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver “Poem 133: The Summer Day”) What would it mean “to live deliberately — to front only the essential facts of life?” (Henry David Thoreau in Walden). Maybe it originates in the way that our founding documents insist on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” without guaranteeing these rights, so unevenly distributed, that we’re always in search of directions on how to do something about it, how to liberate ourselves, how to pursue happiness — Live Laugh Love — Live your Best Life — Carpe Diem, b*tches!
What a heavy burden, Annie Dillard (b.1945) says in “Living like Weasels.” Set it down. Live in obedience to necessity.
“Down is a good place to go, where the mind is single.”
I am not being original in linking Annie Dillard’s writing to Thoreau’s naturalist writing from the previous century. That is a commonplace in the critical literature on Dillard. Her Pulitzer prize winning nonfiction project Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) was, like Thoreau, a journal of an individual traversing a year in a patch of woods near town, with an observer's eye for metaphor. A brilliant thesis I supervised last year by Denise Breevaart argued that Dillard’s outlook was planetary, not naturalist, because she did not recognize or abide by the threshold between her life and the life in the woods, and because she understood, ahead of her time, that they are planes in the same planetary ecosystem. This piece, “Living Like Weasels” comes from the later collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk from 1982. Dillard doesn't come right out and tell us to “live deliberately,” but her writing does start from the same basic gesture — to go to the woods. That’s where the meanings, are.
The piece has six sections that approach the human-animal connection from different vantage points, in concentric circles approaching a center. The first section has a scholarly tone, and an old philosophical question is posed:
“A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?”
This is a repositioning of the famous claim made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations II (1949):
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.
There is a radical separation between animal and human in these philosophical inquiries. The wildness of animals makes them inscrutable to us, our minds unable to understand their minds. Our words are not the same words. Perhaps we can speak dog, but not the language of the truly wild. In Section I, Dillard takes us on a naturalist’s walk through Weasel Life, and cites a few anecdotes in Weasel History, and we leave Section I with an image from her reading: an eagle, who has the jaw bone of a weasel on its neck.
And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton —once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?'
This beautiful gore comes back in Section 6, so hold on to it. I want to point out here that this is the first moment that Dillard comes into the essay as “I.” She connects with us here to name a desire to see this eagle/ weasel death dance in person. “To see” and “to have seen” is the work our narrator will do.
Section II tells us straight away that she has seen a weasel, last week, in a little spot of nature that is also not-nature near Roanoke, Virginia. This section is about how blurred the threshold between the world of the human and the wild has become. I love the little section that begins:
This is, mind you, suburbia.
What follows is a descriptive passage in which every natural object is paired with a man-made one, so that the images they cast on our mind are muddled and fully of (what contemporary science would call, but Dillard did not know the word for) the Anthropocene. Wood ducks nesting//55 mph highway; motorcycle tracks//turtle eggs; beer cans//muskrats. I recognize this terrain, do you? There was a similar patch of woody bushy human/nature in my grandmother’s neighborhood in the 1980s. My sister and I would sneak behind the Hancock’s house and through some bushes and there it was — we were standing in a patch of honest to God woods next to a flood culvert. Stranger Things has a lot of scenes in these pockets of woods in 1980s suburbia. There are woods nearby my house now, but they are essentially a city park where the bombs of WWII flattened the houses and the municipality of The Hague decided not to rebuild there and to let nature and an army of dog walkers have it.
Back to the story.
In Section III “IT” happens. The moment of epiphany. She and the weasel see each other, lock eyes.
“Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.”
There is a lot happening with these pronouns, people. I understand how tedious it is to notice every I, he, it, our, and someone with me, but I can’t help myself. Who is the “someone?” She seems divine. Why is the weasel a “he”?
The way they they look at one another is that of two lovers who “meet unexpectedly when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut.” I once had a student describe this feeling as the same as when you are walking in an aisle in CVS and *bam* your crush is coming up from the other side and you cannot run or hide in vitamins, and it is too late and you just stare at each other.
In the next few lines, “It” happens. The look that is more than a look. Like Emily Dickinson, Dillard is very good at defining the subjective and making it objective, or visible to readers, through metaphor.
Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don't. We keep our skulls. So.
The sharing of this look melts any division between them and the world. It melts the entire world — like a Marvel movie, the look is the endgame.
Then “we” show up: “If you and I looked at each other that way…” There is someone else in the woods with us, in her heart there is a lover who doesn’t look at her with the transparency of the weasel. This is not Marina Abramović and her ex-lover encountering each other in The Artist is Present. “But we don’t” — she says. The “you and I” avoid diving so deeply into one another’s eyes to protect the architecture of their shared existence, to keep the trees and pond where it is, to keep their skulls on their shoulders — the “you and I” do not look at each other at full blast.
There’s a world of disappointment in that “So.”
She tells us that after the weasel disappeared, she felt that she had been in his brain for a moment, and she in his — they had both “plugged into another tape simultaneously.” And found it was a blank. She is talking about a cassette tape, kids, and how sometimes, they were sold as blanks so that you could record onto them. The tape that played in her mind and the weasel’s simultaneously was a blank. One would have hoped she could hear his thoughts in that moment. She imagines the weasel does think about other things, but we cannot read his notes, as they are in bones and tracks.
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.
Section IV reflects on the Big Question:
I would like to learn, or remember, how to live.
The weasel lives in necessity, she tells us, and we live in choice. She elaborates this idea as the difference between the mindlessness and forgetting of a weasel, who lives only to survive, and that of the human, whose mind is warped by constant choosing.
In Section V, she embodies this concept — running with the vision of herself, in her body, after the weasel, down into his den.
“Down is a good place to go, where the mind is single. Down is out, out of your ever-loving mind and back to your careless senses. I remember muteness as a prolonged and giddy fast, where every moment is a feast of utterance received. Time and events are merely poured, unremarked, and ingested directly, like blood pulsed into my gut through a jugular vein.”
Stop making meaning of everything, or narrativizing and planning and talking and ruminating — but instead, drink deeply of the present moment as a feast poured directly down the throat. How to live? Mutely, mindlessly, from the gut. Life should be received, unchallenged, like falling snow.
a weasel lives as he's meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.
I can’t stop there, because she has one more section, and Section VI has launched a thousand college application “Personal Essays.” In this last short paragraph, Dillard sounds a manifesto note — to return to our words and our woods, and to try to manifest a life that is fully of necessity.
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you're going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
In this section, she recasts the image of the eagle with a weasel pendant. In the image, we are not Dolly Parton’s eagle, flying high into the light of a clear blue morning. We’re the weasel, seizing through instinct, dying and disintegrating into oneness. This says more than the chalkboard sign “Live your Purpose,” though it often gets summarized that way. She doesn’t use the word purpose, for one. “Obey, be proper be pure, because YOLO and carpe diem, and yes, The One True Thing is the hill you should die on, and you might as well die and decay lifted as high as you can by the singleness of your purpose” is a little closer. The last paragraph tells us that we are fierce, embodied, and doomed.
She writes “I think it would be…” in answer to her question from Section IV, the Big Question. But by putting it in the future tense, there is a gap between the present and the vision she casts. The image itself is so writerly, so gorgeously drawn and so devastatingly gory, we can’t help but get pulled back up from the place she went down to. This is the world of senses. This is not mute, or blank, but imagistic and full. This is back up in the world of words.
She might also land in the future tense because hers is a wish outside possibility. We might be able to live like weasels, “yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity,” but only for a moment. Our brains are not wired that way. We are not that wild.
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