Envy In The Sky
By Matt Ferrence
"The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind."
Today, I envy Annie Dillard. Other days, there are other envies: Loren Roberts, Bill Waterson, Michael Chabon, Wyatt Earp, John Flansburgh, Henri Gorecki. But today it’s Annie Dillard, no one else but Annie Dillard.
I am sitting in the passenger seat of a Chevy Silverado, riding along Interstate-10, south from Phoenix, Arizona, aimed straight at the ear-like presence of Picacho Peak. To the left, of me and of the peak, there are white wisps in the air, great diaphanous loops that are slowly dissipating into the blueness of the sky. A small speck zooms at the leading edge of the loop: a biplane, a skywriter. This is why I envy Annie Dillard.
Annie Dillard saw skywriters, and Annie Dillard saw something to write about. She had comments. She had a story to tell, a point to pass on to her readers. Annie Dillard saw life in the skywriter, I guess, or she interpreted life in the skywriter. She saw the sublime in it. She saw the purity of the loops, the magic of the art, the unquestionable poetry of life and death, all balled up in a smoke canister strapped to the bottom of a biplane.
I have no such thoughts.
At first, I’m actually looking at two biplanes as we speed down I-10, closer and closer to the great looping wisps of smoke. By the time we are near, one of the skywriters has landed, leaving just the one to carve through the air. The plane shoots skyward. The plane loops around, then shoots straight toward the ground, leaving a white ‘P’ in the air. He turns, scribing an arc across the sky. He shoots his smoke in bursts, creating an incomplete, broken, dotted-line ‘O’.
P-O. It means nothing to me. My mother and my wife spell out the letters from the back seat of the Silverado. (This is my father’s new truck, a 4x4 jobby with four full doors—a real backseat in a pickup truck—and a CD player: Dave Bruebeck is playing.) The letters means nothing to them. I wonder if they would mean anything to Annie Dillard.
We drive on, closer to the skywriting, closer to Picacho Peak which, I realize as I write, has nothing to do with the skywriter. It is merely a reddish mountain, looming in my peripheral vision. It seems to lend monumental import to the skywriter, yet at the same time a large hunk of rock has nothing to do with skywriting. I am searching for meaning here. Blame Annie Dillard. She started it.
The skywriter loops again, straight up, arc, straight down. A spectral ‘P’ floats in the sky. The plane makes a wavy horizontal arc, a landscape perhaps. Georgia O’Keefe has been discussed in the Silverado, and her southwestern landscapes that my father doesn’t care for. This skywriter, it is O’Keefian. It is drawing the landscape, in smoke, from the back of a plane.
This, too, makes no sense, just as P-O makes no sense.
My father stares out the side window of the Silverado to watch the skywriter. The truck drifts with his eyes and a somewhat larger truck honks. My father slides back between the lines of our lane, and the other truck passes by.
On the side of the road, I see another truck upside down in the desert median separating our two lanes from the northbound lanes. There is a yellow trailer behind the overturned truck, mostly unscathed and upright. All I can see of the truck is a dark underbelly, pipes and exhaust systems and other mechanical things that manlier men probably understand. I wonder if the driver of that truck had been watching the skywriter, trying to decipher the enigma of P-O when he lost control and found himself upside down in the desert.
Annie Dillard has been plaguing me these last few days. Late in the week, days before the skywriter, I was working in my studio--if I can rightly call a computer sitting on an old door propped on plastic crates in a spare bedroom a studio. I saw motion in the window. I looked and saw a bee, writhing in the way dying things do. I stood up to investigate. A small spider, small enough to have a party on my smallest fingernail with four of his closest spider friends, was latched onto the bottom of the bee. He was riding his bucking bee bronco, while his poison slowly seeped into the body of the larger insect. The bee was probably ten times his size, yet the spider sat there with a blank look in his eyes. Of course, his eyes were quite small, so blankness may be relative. He might have had a mischievous look in his eyes, all eight of them, or a nasty look, a homicidal look, an ironic look, a pleading look. Really, I have no idea.
Still, I thought immediately of Annie Dillard when I saw the spider. I thought of the empty frogskin she finds along a pond. I thought of the way she creates pages of introspection from the stark truths of nature. And there, in my studio, such stark truth was putting on a display ripe for authorial picking. Here lay meaning. Here lay interpretation.
Here lay profound experience, waiting for explanation.
All I could think about, though, was Annie Dillard and how this was a perfect scene for her. She’d know what to write. Me, I was in awe, paralyzed much like the hapless bee. I had no profound thoughts beyond adolescent rapture. Cool, I thought, there’s a spider killing a bee.
So here I am, days later, chugging back home to southeastern Arizona from a weekend visit to the Grand Canyon, where I envied John Muir, even though I’ve never read anything he’s written about the Grand Canyon, nor am I even sure that he ever wrote anything about the Grand Canyon, being mocked by another spectral Annie Dillard.
This is a biplane, damn it, a skywriter. He’s creating unintelligible letters, in a clear blue sky, just to the left of Picacho Peak. I know this is an important moment. I know it is a writer’s moment. And my reaction is painfully similar to the one I had with the bee: cool, I think, there’s a skywriter spewing white smoke in the sky.
And now, fast-forwarding two days from my anguish on I-10, I am sitting in my studio again. I am considering the facts of the skywriter.
Unintelligible writing: is this the meaningless of communication?
No. No. No. No.
I wonder if I could call Annie Dillard and ask for her opinion, but I don’t know her number. Nor do I know her. Nor can I even find the right Annie Dillard book to reread her experience with skywriting. Worst of all, I checked the window, and there’s no sign of the dead bee or the miniature spider.
I’m alone here. I’m facing the mysteries of the universe, the tiny sublime moments that define our existence, alone. I’m a writer, and thus supposed to interpret these crazy moments. I’m a meaning-maker. I’m the guy who’s supposed to get it done.
But I’m no Annie Dillard. That much is clear. I can only accept the truth, the ugly truth of my moments. She’d write something beautiful, whereas I’ll write this essay, this paean to the glorious mind and creativity of another writer. She’d create understanding, while I’ll only create confusion and complexity out of two simple events.
There was a skywriter. There was a bee.
The smoke spread to nothing in the air. The bee is gone.
This is why I envy Annie Dillard today.
Matt Ferrence currently is a doctoral student at West Virginia University, and has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh. He has published articles in several regional magazines, such as Highroads and Arizona Highways.
Photo "Happiness" courtesy of Jozsef Szoke, Gyongyos, Hungary.
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