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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters resembles both Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm in that Dillard is still seeking answers to what she considers to be key questions: What is the universe about? What is the god like who created such a place as this?...

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Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters resembles both Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm in that Dillard is still seeking answers to what she considers to be key questions: What is the universe about? What is the god like who created such a place as this? How is it possible to make sense of a universe that contains so much destructive energy and violence? In this book she again hunts for the silent god who created the natural world that Dillard often finds disturbingly violent and indifferent. This time, rather than center her investigations around one locale, as she did in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she ranges far afield. Dillard is adamant that her other books are not, as some critics and reviewers have asserted, collections of essays; as far as she is concerned, only Teaching a Stone to Talk fits that description.

A trip to the Galápagos Islands provides her with the opportunity to examine evolutionary theory in her essay “Life on the Rocks: The Galápagos.” In “The Deer of Providencia,” she describes a small deer caught and suffering in a hunter’s snare, unable to do anything but injure itself more severely as it struggles. “Total Eclipse” recounts her experiences in Yakima, Washington, during a total eclipse of the sun when she felt overwhelmed by the power of nature as the moon’s shadow slammed across the earth. She shared the primal fear that the sun’s light would be extinguished forever. “Living Like Weasels” discusses the fierce competitive energy of these hunters, and Dillard wonders if, freed from the constraints of society, she could fight as viciously for her survival as they do every day.

As in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard uses the things that surround her as starting points in her search for meaning in a violent, indifferent universe. Unlike in the earlier book, however, she occasionally interacts with other people. Here she tries to fit in, to feel comfortable in a world that seems to threaten from all sides and at all times. Sometimes the world looks like home, while at others it appears completely unfamiliar and aloof.

In “An Expedition to the Pole” she interweaves a description of the Catholic church that she attends (after having given up her family’s Presbyterianism when a teenager), an account of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, and her own trip to the Arctic Circle. In all three instances she finds herself in alien territory, yet at the essay’s conclusion she joins in the song, frantically: What choice does she have but to become a part of the only congregation, the community of humankind?

Although Dillard says that Teaching a Stone to Talk is a true book of essays rather than a tightly knit series of pieces, the pieces in this book wrestle with what for Dillard are central issues. The title essay, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” clearly makes this point, recounting the story of a man who kept a stone and each day tried to get it to utter a word. Absurd as this sounds at first, it is precisely what Dillard tries to do in almost everything she writes: get an answer back from the universe. She listens and listens to nature, hoping to hear the voice of the creator; sometimes, as in “An Expedition to the Pole,” “Lenses,” “A Field of Silence,” and “Life on the Rocks: The Galápagos,” she seems to detect a faint whisper in response to her questions, “Are You out there?”

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