Living Like Weasels – Annie Dillard

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote when he was out walking in the mid 19th century, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

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Weasel! Let’s go on our own walk with Annie Dillard and see what we can forage from this essay.

Initially let’s look at the language. It’s worth considering all the language she uses to make us feel and mold our way of thinking to see the weasel from her perspective. We start with a four-word sentence. “The weasel is wild” is seemingly unimportant, but the first sentence in an essay is of supreme importance. It set’s the tone and content of the essay. We are tricked into thinking that the sentences here will be easy to follow. We saw that was far from the truth. Three sentences later we get a twenty-three-word sentence that expands on the content of the first. This back and forth between short and long syntax will keep the observant reader on their toes, and make sure that they aren’t bored, even subconsciously.

This is a great lesson for the early writer. By changing your sentence structure and size, you are keeping things interesting on multiple levels. It allows you to tease your reader with seemingly unimportant sentences such as “The weasel is wild.” Duh. We know he is wild. However, as we dig in, the wildness becomes an understatement, as well as a lament.

The chief concern in this essay is that we are not wild, and Dillard wants us to be. It would allow us to connect with the world in a much more meaningful way. Does that mean that she is advocating for us all to give everything up and move into the wilderness to live like a wild animal? No. But that does not mean we cannot connect to the world around us. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote when he was out walking in the mid 19th century, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” and here, Annie Dillard is repeating it in a way that is much more modern, and much easier to digest than Thoreau’s rambling thoughts. She is on a walk and chances a glance at a weasel. From that glance, she realizes that life can be more simple. Should be more simple. How do we make it simple? Do we give it all up? No. We just pay attention, which is much harder than it seems.

The weasel is tenacious. It is strong and resilient. It doesn’t give up. It observes what is around it. The story she tells of the naturalist who saw an eagle with a weasel skull still biting its throat is telling. Even in death, the weasel stays strong. There is the essay. Be like the weasel, be strong. When people pick their “spirit animals” in that fun game, whoever chooses the weasel. No one. They chose the eagle, the bear, the dog, the cat, the lion, the lamb. The weasel is left by the wayside, the last to be chosen for dodgeball (and he is only chosen because we have to choose everyone wanting to play dodgeball). Dillard asks us to consider the weasel as an option worth thinking about.

Weasel!

We are on the walk with Dillard. She asks us if we have ever seen one. If not, she is excited to tell us. “He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, as muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert.” Which, despite all, is a beautiful description. It’s easy to picture the weasel from that. Dillard then moves into the animal gaze. Jacques Derrida, sa french philosopher wrote in his book, The Animal that Therefore I Am wrote,

As with every bottomless gaze, as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called                         “animal” offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the                   ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say, the bordercrossing from which                                 vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself                           by the name that he believes he gives himself.”

What we can read out of Derrida that the gaze of the animal and human is an attachment to an older time when we were not so separate. Think about it. Even in the 1800’s when more people lived with the land, and off the land in a total way, we were more connected to animals in a primal and ancient way. We were more like animals. When you go farther back than that, we get more primal. When Dillard sees the eyes of the weasel she is forced to be reminded of what it used to be, and what life is for the weasel. “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.” She was so surprised it made her jump and for an instant actually see what is in front of her rather than what she was thinking of. Later, she says, “I would like to learn, or remember, how to live.” but ultimately as the weasel moves on hurriedly, she realizes she is missing her chance. Are we also missing our chance to live deliberately? How do we take advantage of it. This is not necessarily a rant against technology or cell phones, but a desire to learn to live with all of it rather than with only one at a time.

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