One of the new pleasures in my life is getting to know my colleague, Doug Van Gundy, a poet and essayist, a fiddle- and banjo-player, and a professor in the English department at West Virginia Wesleyan College. We carpool to campus together, talking about books and movies and music, about our classes, our students, our departments. We share each other’s joys (“they really seemed to get that short story today”). We commiserate with each other’s frustrations (“gotta find another way to talk about Aristotle and the virtues”).

Today Doug and I talked about the wonderful writer–poet, novelist, essayist–Annie Dillard. One of his classes is reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 when Dillard was just 28 years old.

Our conversation got me thinking about Dillard’s essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” and I looked up this passage:

You quit your house and country, quit your ship, and quit your companions in the tent, saying, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ The light on the far side of the blizzard lures you. You walk, and one day you enter the spread heart of silence, where lands dissolve and seas become vapor and ices sublime under unknown stars. This is the end of the Via Negativa, the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle, and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins.

Dillard’s powers of observation are unparalleled and the beauty of her writing is breathtaking, sometimes heartbreaking. Her work is not about “nature appreciation”; she describes not specimens but mysteries. She functions less as expert and more as witness. When she describes the journey into the “spread heart of silence,” you know you’re traveling with an able guide; you know that this is a pilgrimage you are meant to make.

It was nice to be reminded of this today–to talk about such matters on a late summer afternoon commute across the mountains. Thanks, Doug.