“A Weasel is Wild. Who knows what he thinks?” A reading of Annie Dillard’s “Living like Weasels” (1982) "White Weasel, Stoat (Puttorius ermninea) from the viviparous quadrupeds of North America (1845) illustrated by John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862). Original from The New York Public Library. Public domain.

“A Weasel is Wild. Who knows what he thinks?” A reading of Annie Dillard’s “Living like Weasels” (1982)

In this post, LUCAS lecturer Jessie Morgan-Owens revisits an essay that is a joy to teach: “Living like Weasels” by Annie Dillard (1982). This essay invites us to imagine life outside the binary of culture/nature, and asks, what would it be like to live only for necessity, like a weasel?

A question that gets asked over and over in U.S. American literature 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 the question originates with our founding documents, which insist on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” without guaranteeing these rights to all. Contemporary Americans are still in search of directions on how to live, how to obtain these rights, to liberate ourselves, to pursue happiness — Live Laugh Love — Live your Best Life — Carpe Diem — Follow your Passion! And so on. What a heavy burden, Annie Dillard (b.1945) says in “Living like Weasels.” Set it down. Live in obedience to necessity.

I am not 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’s Walden, a journal of an individual traversing a year in a patch of woods near town, with an observer’s eye for metaphor. A thesis that I supervised last year by Denise Breevaart for her BA in English Language and Literature 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. Dillard understood, ahead of her time, that both woods and suburb, woman and weasel, are planes in the same planetary ecosystem. This piece, “Living Like Weasels” comes from the later collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk from 1982. “I would like to learn, or remember, how to live,” she admits. 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. But, unlike Thoreau, Dillard admits that she goes out to the woods “not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it.” (33) She’s in the woods to remember how to live without overthinking.

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.” Until recently, Western civilization posited a radical separation between animal and human, in these and similar 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.

In Section 1, Dillard takes us on a naturalist’s stroll through Weasel Life, and cites a few anecdotes in Weasel History, and we leave Section 1 with an image from her reading: an eagle, who has the jawbone 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?” (30)

This beautiful gore comes back in Section 6, so hold on to it. 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 2 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, USA. This section is about how blurred the threshold between the world of the human and the wild has become: “This is, mind you, suburbia.” (30) In this descriptive passage 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. The toggling between culture and nature happens so quickly and often that any distinction is lost between them. “The far end is an alternating series of fields and woods, fields and woods, threaded everywhere with motorcycle tracks--in whose bare clay wild turtles lay eggs.” In Facing Gaia, Bruno Latour calls for us to use the term, “Culture/Nature” to describe this idea, for, as he says, “we are not dealing with domains but rather with one and the same concept, divided into two parts, which turn out to be bound together, as it were by a sturdy rubber band” (15). You can almost see the rubber band in Dillard’s prose, “fields and woods, fields and woods…”

In Section 3, it happens. The moment of epiphany. The connection. She and the weasel see each other, “Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.” Much happens in the pronouns of this section. Who is the divine “someone?” Why is the weasel a “he”? “It” is the look that is more than a look:

“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.” (32)

“Living like Weasels” comes on quietly, but it harbors a tornado. The sharing of this look melts any division between them and the world. It melts the entire world. The look is the endgame. And “we” shows up: “If you and I looked at each other that way…” There is someone else in the woods in her imagination, perhaps someone who doesn’t look at her with the transparency she craves. This is not Marina Abramović and her ex-lover encountering each other in The Artist is Present. The “you and I” avoid diving deeply into one another’s eyes, to protect the architecture of their shared existence, to keep the trees and pond where they are, to keep their skulls on their shoulders — this “you and I” do not look at each other at full blast. “But we don’t” — she says. “So.” There’s a world of disappointment in that very human word: “So.”

The desire here is to fully know the other, to close the gap between self and other. After the weasel disappeared, she says that she had been in his brain for “sixty seconds,” and he in hers — they had both “plugged into another tape simultaneously,” but she found it was a blank.

In the absence of an answer from the weasel, she reflects upon his “muteness.” The weasel lives in necessity, she tells us, and we live in choice. She elaborates upon this idea as the difference between the mindlessness of a weasel, who lives only to survive, and that of the human, whose mind is warped by constant choosing. So, how to live? Mutely, mindlessly, from the gut. In Section 5, 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.” (34)

Finally, in the last short paragraph, Section 6, an answer to the Big Question, directed at “you”:

“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.” (34)

Speaking to “you” in the future tense, Dillard shoehorns a gap between the present and the vision she casts of a posthuman future for us. Her closing image is so writerly, so gorgeously imagistic, and so devastatingly gory, that we can’t help but get pulled back up from the mute place she went “down” to. This last image is set in the world of allusion, metaphors, and repetition, and not mute nor blank. She has returned to words and thought. 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.

A version of this piece first appeared as part of an ongoing project, Select Reading. Every Friday, Jessie Morgan-Owens revisits a work from her lectures on American literature. Follow along here: https://selectreading.substack.com/.

Further Reading:

Anderson, Sam. “Impossible Pages.” New York Times Magazine, March 6, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/0...

Dillard, Annie. 1982. Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: Harper Perennial. Available at Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/te....

Latour, Bruno. 2017. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Stephen Fender. 2020. Walden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.