Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098

Dillard is keenly aware of the opposites in creation—beauty and ugliness, bliss and terror. The beauty, grace, and perfect, careless spontaneity of a mockingbird as it plunges in a straight vertical descent from a four-story building impresses her deeply, but it is the grotesque phenomena in creation, such as the...

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Dillard is keenly aware of the opposites in creation—beauty and ugliness, bliss and terror. The beauty, grace, and perfect, careless spontaneity of a mockingbird as it plunges in a straight vertical descent from a four-story building impresses her deeply, but it is the grotesque phenomena in creation, such as the frog being sucked by the water bug, which prompt her more persistent and darker speculations. The questions “What’s it all about?” and “What is going on here?” run like a leitmotif throughout the book. They are asked particularly in regard to the insect world, which boasts such a wide variety of puzzling behaviors, from the habit of the female praying mantis of devouring the male as they copulate to the female lacewing’s eating of her own eggs. Dillard muses over the world as a parasitic place in which everything is battered, torn, preyed upon, and devoured. The world does not fit together in a way that makes rational sense; it offers testimony only to the Creator’s exuberance, not to His goodness, or even to His intelligence.

Yet at other times Dillard’s vision extends beyond the problematic aspects of Creation. During moments of heightened perception, she sees the world in a wholly different way, pulsing with divine fire and light. Moments such as these are also a recurring motif, and they act as a counterpoint to the insistent questioning. Indeed, the entire book can be understood as a prolonged meditation on how to see.

Normally, people see only what they have been conditioned to expect; the human brain acts as an editor without the conscious permission of the mind. Dillard draws on her reading of a book about how people who had been blind from birth reacted when their sight was restored. One girl, speechless with wonder before a tree, eventually described it as “the tree with the lights in it.” This image gives Dillard one of her central, informing ideas. She describes how she had searched for the tree with the lights in it for many years, through all seasons. One day, out walking and thinking of nothing in particular, she saw a cedar “charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.” The grass below her feet was seemingly on fire also, and charged with light. It was an epiphany, a manifestation, such as Moses had received through the burning bush, of a spirit and a power, burning in fire and light, which makes all things new. Dillard felt not only that she was seeing for the first time but that she too was being seen. The moment passed, but she lives for its recurrence; it is the moment which renders all other moments in life, and all other enterprises, inconsequential.

In this connection, Dillard makes ingenious use of the story of Xerxes, who apparently halted his army for three days so that he might contemplate the beauty of a single sycamore tree. He too, says Dillard, had seen the tree with the lights in it, and it put a halt to all of his worldly endeavors. Blaise Pascal, she notes, also had an experience of divine fire, and recorded it in a note which he sewed into the lining of his jacket, so that he would carry it with him at all times.

The moment of mystic perception comes unasked for and cannot be summoned at will. Closely related to it is Dillard’s prerequisite for clear seeing: innocence, the capacity to lose self-consciousness and become completely absorbed in the object of contemplation. This involves the ability to live in the present, and Dillard devotes an entire chapter to it. She recalls one apparently insignificant incident in which she was patting a puppy at a deserted gasoline station, feeling the western wind on her face and the taste of recent coffee on her tongue, and watching a nearby mountain. For some unknown reason, self-consciousness was momentarily held in abeyance, and she felt fully alive, in the present, with the same elation she had felt when she had contemplated the cedar tree. It was a moment of innocence—but naturally it vanished the very moment she became aware of it. Dillard insists that it is self-consciousness that traps mankind in separateness, whether from God, from nature, or from one another.

On numerous occasions she seems able to overcome this built-in barrier, to make herself, so to speak, transparent before the phenomena she is observing. She watches a muskrat, for example, and later comments, “I never knew I was there”; she suggests that had an electroencephalogram been taken of her brain activity at the time it would have registered flat. She was a passive receiver, taking in but not giving out. The experience is close, as she realizes, to the loss of self the mystic knows (Dillard refers frequently to Thomas Merton, Martin Buber, and the Cabala), and it is usually accompanied by a feeling of balance, repose, and calm.

Such experiences create a strong sense of unity between the observer and the observed; they bridge the gap between subject and object. Although Dillard seems always to have possessed an acute sense of the affinity between all manifestations of life (she quotes Dylan Thomas approvingly: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age”), in her epiphanies she seems to leap beyond simple affinity into identification, to become what she is contemplating, and the result is a sense of expansion and freedom. The loss of self is also the passage into a larger self, infinite in its variety: “Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.”

Ultimately these experiences, and others like them, quiet the what’s-it-all-about refrain that runs like the Devil’s counter-tune to the song of praise prompted by the sight of the tree with the lights in it. In the dialectic between the analytic intellect and the visionary self—a variation on the age-old conflict between doubt and faith—it is the latter which proves to be stronger. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ends on a note of exultation and acceptance of the totality of creation. No answers are provided to the questions that have troubled Dillard’s rational intellect, but she is happy to go on treading the path of the Mystic Way, with her right foot saying “Glory” and her left foot saying “Amen.”

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