Dillard is much more than the voice of her most popular book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In fact, those readers and critics who view her as an untutored Appalachian local who both rhapsodizes about and is horrified by the natural world of rural Virginia greatly misjudge their subject. That Dillard can make her readers share in such small and private activities as seeking out praying mantis egg cases or sitting quietly trying not to scare a muskrat attests to both her powers of observation and her skill at descriptive narration. All of Dillard’s writing displays this almost photographic evocation of place, a skill that has prompted critics to label her a naturalist. Dillard does not agree; for her, the natural world provides the only avenue by which to contemplate the ultimate, the absolute, the divine. Nature provides metaphors that describe human agonies and activities; nature, for Dillard, is the only place where she can catch glimpses of an otherwise silent and invisible God.
Surprisingly to some people, Dillard does not think of herself as an environmentalist or as a champion of wilderness preservation; rather, she sees herself as someone for whom the world is her greatest subject because it allows her to consider those questions she sees as being most vital. Because she believes that it is a writer’s goal to bring enlightenment, give clarification, search out answers, and provide inspiration, her writing probes the nature of being and the meaning of meaning. She looks to nature—to the concrete world—for examples of courage and inspiration, and sometimes her search is a painful one, for wherever she turns she confronts the hard realities of living in an eat-or-be-eaten world, a place where things are born only to die and where destruction seems to be waiting around the next corner.
The mystery that infuses the natural world does not provide Dillard with easy answers to a core question such as “Why am I here?” In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, she looks at the prolific activity of the insect world and comes away frightened by the ravenous and destructive appetites that even seem to compel females laying eggs to devour their offspring. What should be one of the most powerful images of hope—birth and the perpetuation of life—becomes an image of destruction. The explanation she offers suggests that what Dillard hopes for is not affirmation through explicit religious salvation but acceptance of the great dance of birth, death, and renewal that surrounds and includes every living being on earth. From that acknowledgment comes tranquillity, for Dillard can see herself as a part of, rather than apart from, the teeming activity that surrounds her at Tinker Creek.
The search for the answers, the quest to bring meaning to day-to-day events underpins all that Dillard writes. In Holy the Firm (1977) she again looks at pain, suffering, death, and chaos. She wants to find a reason for human suffering, and again her answer is to affirm that there does, indeed, exist a tie between living beings and God, but a tie that is not always immediately obvious in the daily round of accident, pain, and irrationality. In both Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, Dillard perhaps raises more questions than she answers, or at least so it seems to those critics who want her to tie up all the loose ends satisfactorily. However, loose ends are precisely what interest Dillard; the world as she sees it offers even the most practiced observer more loose ends than easy answers.
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, although Dillard ranges further afield than her immediate “backyard” and presents essays not only about the goings-on near Tinker Creek but also about the creatures of the Galápagos Islands and the Arctic Circle, her intention remains the same: witnessing nature. For Dillard, this witnessing is a religious act; in everything she sees and experiences, she seeks answers to primal questions. In this sense, one could say that Dillard’s work reveals the nature of the writer intensely, yet she insists that she never writes about herself, that she works painstakingly to keep her personality out of what she has to show her readers.
Dillard brings her precision and sense of detail to An American Childhood, a book that explores her growing up in Pittsburgh. In her earlier work, the person of Dillard remained behind the scenes; the reader saw what she saw, heard what she heard, and reacted. The personality of the narrator was somehow distanced, muted. In contrast, in An American Childhood, although Dillard insists that she is not revealed, this book offers a much more intimate view of Annie Dillard than any of her previous volumes. Most important, An American Childhood allows readers insight into the careful observer and deep thinker that is the “voice” of all that Dillard writes.
One important side of her personality that surfaces in An American Childhood is something that was also apparent in her earlier work: a voracious intellectual curiosity. Concrete knowledge serves as her catalyst, allowing her to spring from mere facts to a consideration of their metaphysical implications.
In Holy the Firm, for example, she describes a plane accident in which a young girl is horribly disfigured, and the girl’s burns then serve as the vehicle by which Dillard explores the meaning of pain and, by extension, the nature of a divinity that could allow such horrors to occur.
In The Writing Life (1989), Dillard examines the profession of writing: how one writes, what it means to write, why one writes. With her usual intimacy—but typical lack of concrete personal details—she discusses the solitary struggle that writing is. As in all of her earlier work, Dillard concerns herself with knowing, meaning, and interconnectedness. For her, the world is both the palette and the canvas: She draws her materials from her surroundings, and she colors her surroundings with the philosophical considerations that are her preoccupation. Like Henry David Thoreau, whose heir Dillard has been called, she travels far and rarely leaves home. Her universe starts in her study or at her back door and extends from there to the farthest corner of the universe . . . and beyond.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
First published: 1974
Type of work: Essays
The beauties and horrors of the natural world offer the careful observer access to the divine.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Dillard touches on all the important themes that would continue to inform her writing. At first glance, this book might appear to be a collection of occasional essays that track the changing seasons through one calendar year. In fact, that is how some critics have viewed this work: as essays on the perplexities of nature. While the book does take up this theme again and again, it is not for the simple pleasure of holding up a quirk of nature for its thrill value.
Dillard carefully built this volume after months of painstaking observation of and research about both metaphysics and the natural world. The rhythms of the book are tightly controlled and depend on recurrent images and themes that surface over and over, allowing Dillard to focus on the key issues at the heart of the narrator’s personal journey. As much as anything, this book is about seeing and about gaining the ability to see within oneself, into the surrounding world, and beyond to the divinity that informs the world.
The book opens with a startling image of violence, creation, and death in a description of the bloody paw prints left on the narrator by her returning tomcat. The world Dillard sees as she looks out from her cabin beside Tinker Creek in Virginia is one in which little seems to make obvious sense. Wherever Dillard turns, she sees the raw, brutal power of nature to reproduce itself, and she finds the sheer exuberance of the natural world startling, overwhelming, and stupefying. She cannot look at an insect laying its eggs, for example, without being reminded of all the instances in the insect kingdom where the mother devours its mate, its eggs, or its young—or is food for them in return for giving them life.
What is the point, Dillard asks, in bothering to replicate oneself only to serve as grist for the mill, food for the soon-to-be-born? In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard questions a god that would set such a horror show in motion, and she wonders how one can go on in the face of such depressing statistics: No matter what, everyone must die.
Yet Dillard wants to find an answer that will allow her to celebrate rather than be repulsed by what she sees. Rather than being only a collection of essays about her observations of the natural world, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek traces the author’s abundance and vitality. By looking carefully at the world around her confined neighborhood of Tinker Creek, Dillard discovers a pattern and gains some conviction that there is something more going on than a mad dance of death. She learns to see beyond the particular individual, past the moment, to a larger picture.
While some readers will find her answers depressing, others will discover that Dillard achieves an acceptance of what she sees around her. Unlike many others, who look on the violence of nature and see no possibility for a divine plan, Dillard comes to believe that the endless cycle—birth, death, and transformation into atoms of other beings—is in itself a way of gaining transcendence over death and achieving immortality.
Certain central natural images, such as her cat’s bloody paw prints, surface again and again after Dillard has once told their story. For example, she stands transfixed beside the creek, at first seeing the water and a frog that appears to collapse into itself as she looks on. Then her eyes shift focus, and she sees the giant waterbug that has just finished draining its captured frog. This picture of the malign side of nature hovering immediately below an apparently tranquil and innocent surface is one which Dillard will revisit time and time again. Dillard sees the death’s head behind the living form many times; she confronts nature’s seeming blind preference for the species over the individual. She sees things up close and notices the ragged wings, the frayed leaves, the living things being ground to dust. A more timid person would have given up and perhaps turned suicidal. Dillard, however, continued to look for answers, realizing that there is more to nature than the surface turmoil and violence.
In one chapter, Dillard recounts the story of a young woman who was born without sight. When surgery allows the woman to see for the first time as a young adult, she at first cannot see anything, then she begins to see but cannot comprehend or distinguish one image from another, then she sees in distorted fashion because she has yet to gain the experience by which to interpret what her eyes show her. Thus, when the young woman is asked to describe the tree outside her hospital room that so fascinates her, she talks about a tree with lights in it. To her untutored, inexperienced eyes, the focal point is the spaces between the tree’s leaves backlit by the sun. The young woman sees the world from a fresh perspective, one denied most of us who have been “taught” how to “see”—to focus on what is deemed “important.” This story serves as a central parable in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and is an image to which Dillard returns many times in the book, serving as her metaphor for that which she seeks in her journey through the natural world. She is looking for the divine power behind the everyday; its discovery is something that she comes...
(The entire section is 4833 words.)