Essays and Criticism
The Role of Reading in Dillard’s Vision of the Student of Nature
The term nature writing refers to the work of those writers since the time of Thoreau and Darwin who have consciously tried to go out into nature, look at it closely, and report what they see, without sentimentalizing or anthropomorphizing, without getting in the way of the natural events they observe, and without using nature as a backdrop for a political or social commentary. It is into this genre of writing that Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is usually classified. Dillard wrote her master’s thesis on Walden, and used Thoreau’s book as a model for her own.
Dillard’s reliance on Thoreau is interesting in many ways. Looking at both books together, readers can learn a great deal about how the world changed in the hundred or so years between publications. What information was available to Dillard that Thoreau did not have? What were the new advancements in science? What had naturalists observed and recorded about the behaviors of living creatures? To what extent can a person step out of the technological world and encounter nature purely, on its own terms? All of these are interesting questions, worthy of consideration. But this essay is more interested in something that binds Thoreau and Dillard together across the span of a hundred years: their lives as readers and writers. Although they believe that people must clear their minds and open their hearts to nature, without interjecting their intellect and their expectations, they turn again and again to books for confirmation or clarification of what they have seen.
Thoreau devotes an entire chapter to ‘‘Reading,’’ and mentions the subject throughout his book. He brings little with him to his cabin in the woods, but he does bring books, as he explains: ‘‘My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.’’ He keeps a copy of the Iliad on his table, and like most of his contemporaries he knows much of the Bible by heart. In Thoreau’s mind, studying books and studying nature are paired, and ‘‘We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old’’ as give up studying the classics. The written word, he says, ‘‘is the work of art nearest to life itself.’’
Yet a lover of the written word must be careful not to let books replace actual experience. Thoreau writes, ‘‘No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected … compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?’’ For his first summer in the cabin, Thoreau put his books away.
Dillard faces the same struggle to balance her essential trust in the written word and the need to get out and see. Unlike Thoreau, Dillard has a great variety of books to tempt her indoors. As she admits early on, she is not a scientist; much of what she knows about plants and animals she has learned through reading. The references to reading are...
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‘‘The Waters of Separation’’: Myth and Ritual in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Postmodernism and the Sacred
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d halfawakened. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.
It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence….
So begins Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One sentence later we read:
These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you’re lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is concerned with morning matters, the articulation of a sacred dimension of existence while walking lost ‘‘in the leafy interior,’’ by Tinker Creek. ‘‘What blood [is] this, and what roses?’’ What is this life, this creek, this ‘‘faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf?’’ Annie Dillard’s reflections on these morning matters are given voice within a postmodernist ambience in which, as Heisenberg says, ‘‘method and object can no longer be separated.’’ We are caught up, and all routes back to (and through) that ‘‘curved sleep’’ are mythical tracings on and in the ‘‘looped soil’’ of our lives and land. We wake, not to truth, but to myth, ‘‘to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.’’
Annie Dillard’s exploration at Tinker Creek is the weaving of a world—not so much a search for Truth as a matter of description, an account which answers to her (and our) needs. Mythical narrative. Truth as response, embeddedness, ethical or religious vernacular. It is not just method and object that cannot be separated in these mythical tracings; neither can the thread of valuation be teased from the cloth of description. They are ineluctably interwoven, nurturing one another, calling one another forth.
The questions and accounts elicited by Tinker Creek are of the sacred—the sacred not as a world apart, but a dimension of the here-and-now, ‘‘the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.’’ The questions posed, the experiences undergone, and the need to speak these forth in a narrative intertwined with ceremony and ritual are properly termed ‘sacred’, not because of the nature of the subject matter, but because of the shape, the contour, the texture of the cloth required to weave them into coherence. The cloth, moreover, is woven in a sacred manner. It is not possible, finally, to tease apart question, experience, need, account, ceremony, ritual, fact and value.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek does not give credence to Enlightenment (modernist) conceptions of epistemology and metaphysics as these are reflected in the correspondence theory of truth and the metaphysical distinction between fact and value. But neither is language on a holiday in this work, freed from the requirements of fidelity to this world. Rejection of traditional epistemology does not release language from the pull of the world, but frees it into a deeper commitment, a deeper faithfulness—or the promise of one—to the complex interplay of question, experience, narrative, ceremony, and world. It returns language to the world, recognizing it as an expression of the world, emergent from it. In this, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an exemplary text of feminist postmodernism.
Postmodernist rereadings of the notion of truth all too often reflect merely the negative dimension of our distance from the Enlightenment—constituting a masculinist reaction to the sundering of language from world. The Enlightenment subjective self remains intact in these versions of the postmodernist world: It is the place of language’s exile. With the dissolution of the modernist subjective self in many feminist postmodernist accounts, however, language returns to the world, not as its mirror, but as emergent from it and therefore embedded in it.
But what guarantees do emergence and embeddedness provide? Emergent, therefore true? With the dissolution of Enlightenment epistemology and metaphysics the notion of truth becomes less useful, plays less of a role than it once did. But the notion that words give expression to the world does not mean that issues cousin to those of truth and falsity no longer arise. In the spirit of a contextualist or coherentist and naturalized epistemology which seems most appropriate to feminist postmodernism, Annie Dillard’s text suggests that the central concern is fidelity to the complex interplay of question, experience, narrative, ceremony and world. The epistemological issues are those of fitness, appropriate care, and health, to name but three of a large network of terms which suggest that epistemology itself is a matter of social negotiation. These do not stand outside the interplay of question, experience, and narrative, policing these concepts. They are additional components of the weave. They are, or ought to be, central and pivotal notions, analogues of modernist criteria of truth embedded in foundationalist epistemologies. But their centrality does not place them outside the tapestry. Rather, their function is to orient particular inquiries at the same time as they are influenced and shaped by them.
King David leaped and danced naked before the ark of the Lord in a barren desert. Here [at Tinker Creek] the very looped soil is an intricate throng of praise.
Hasidism has a tradition that one of man’s purposes is to assist God in the work of redemption by ‘‘hallowing’’ the things of creation. By a tremendous heave of his spirit, the devout man frees the divine sparks trapped in the mute things of time; he uplifts the forms and moments of creation, bearing them aloft into that rare air and hallowing fire in which all clays must shatter and burst. Keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.
The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all. Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given. Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.
There is a tension Pilgrim at Tinker Creek between, on the one hand, a thoroughly naturalized and contextualized inquiry into the sacred and, on the other hand, the Western theological tradition of a transcendent creator-god which provides much of the explicitly theological vocabulary at work in the text. One of the joys of reading this book is savoring the interplay of these two aspects of the text. Annie Dillard uses, appreciates, and accepts the Western tradition within the ambience of her own orientation to the sacred. The dominant Western theological tradition is not part of her approach, or complementary to it—it is transformed by it.
The problem Annie Dillard sets herself is seemingly posed for her by the Western theological tradition in the form of the problem of evil:
Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, … then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull.
But even here the traditional problem of reconciling the existence of pain and suffering with belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly benevolent God is transformed into the problem of providing a description that will ‘‘compass’’ both ‘‘the waste of pain’’ and ‘‘the inrush of power and light.’’ An a priori description of God is not the fixed point of Annie Dillard’s exploration. An account of the sacred does not precede and shape her description of the world; rather, such an account emerges from the description. The vocabulary of the theological tradition is pulled into the description as experience requires—pulled in and transformed. She takes seriously the rhetorical question from the Koran: ‘‘The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?.’’ The tradition is not saved, in the face of ‘‘the waste of pain,’’ by the neo-Gnostic notion of a Deus Absconditus. If there is a focus, a fixed—or relatively fixed—point, it is her faithfulness to Tinker Creek (‘‘I live there,’’ although ‘‘the mountains are home’’). And so the tradition is transmuted by the creek: ‘‘It could be that God has not absconded but spread … to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.’’ There is an older, more venerable, less masculine conception of the problem of evil at work here: ‘‘the waste of pain,’’ not as challenge to theology, but as stimulus to it; not escape into theology, but presence to the world:
Now also in the valley night a skunk emerged from his underground burrow to hunt pale beetle grubs in the dark. A great horned owl folded his wings and dropped from the sky, and the two met on the bloodied surface of earth. Spreading over a distance, the air from that spot thinned to a frail sweetness, a tinctured wind that bespoke real creatures and real encounters at the edge.
‘‘God has not absconded but spread.’’ And so, Annie Dillard says,
I propose to keep here what Thoreau called a ‘‘meteorological journal of the mind,’’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.
She ‘‘would like to know the grasses and sedges—and care,’’ not just because (as she says here) her exploration would be ‘‘a series of happy recognitions,’’ but because, as she says elsewhere, these matters have moral and religious significance. ‘‘I suspect,’’ she says, ‘‘that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany.’’ Botany itself (or zoology or geology—the geology of the mindscape/landscape of Tinker Creek—or … ) is a moral (or religious) exercise:
What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.
Meaning is not an overlay on experience in this text; it is inextricably bound up with having things as ‘‘multiply and intricately’’ present as possible. Meaning, valuation, religious significance and description emerge as dimensions of her textured and narrative embeddedness in the valley through which flows the ‘‘active mystery’’ of Tinker Creek.
These meanings emerge, not from the world-as-object, but from the world-with-her-in-it, ‘‘lost in the leafy interior,’’ remembering ‘‘pressure, and a curved sleep.’’
A little blood from the wrists and throat is the price I would willingly pay for that pressure of clacking weights on my shoulders, for the scent of deserts, groundfire in my ears—for being so in the clustering thick of things, rapt and enwrapped in the rising and falling real world.
The chapter titled ‘‘Winter’’—a time for reading and preparation, a time when the world is object to the inquiring mind—ends, not simply with the winter thought that ‘‘things are well in their place’’, but with a sense of the uncanny, a premonition of the breaking in upon her of a new order of meaning:
If I go downstairs now will I see a possum just rounding a corner, trailing its scaled pink tail? I know that one night, in just this sort of rattling wind, I will go to the kitchen for milk and find on the back of the stove a sudden stew I never fixed, bubbling, with a deer leg sticking out.
And the ‘‘Nightwatch’’ chapter, which is the structural parallel of the ‘‘Winter’’ chapter (and prepares her and the reader for the final meditations of the book), ends with a sense of being ‘‘rapt and enwrapped in the rising and falling real world.’’
Annie Dillard’s approach, as I have said, effects a transformation of the dominant Western theological tradition. The mountains may be home, but the creeks are the world and where she lives; and her theology flows from (in) the creeks, not from the mountains. The hallowing of creation consists, not in the (Hasidic/Gnostic) freeing of ‘‘divine sparks trapped in the mute things of time,’’ ‘‘bearing them aloft into that rare air … in which all clays must shatter,’’ but in ‘‘keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind.’’ The ‘‘very looped soil,’’ not a dance ‘‘before the ark of the Lord in a barren desert,’’ is, for her, ‘‘an intricate throng of praise.’’
These contrasts exemplify a consistent thread running through Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard’s naturalized theology isn’t a move from the particularities of this world to religious hypotheses concerning its origin or significance. Rather, the very act of keeping the world ‘‘in mind, in intelligence’’ is conceived of as a religious act. This is an important aspect of what I have in mind when I call her naturalized theology a contextualized theology. There is a parallel here with ethical contextualism. To contextualize ethical deliberation is, in some sense, to provide a narrative, or story, from which the solution to the ethical dilemma emerges as the fitting conclusion. The particular problems posed by the attempt to articulate a satisfactory environmental ethic, for example, press for a naturalization and contextualization of ethics. The complex understanding that comes from the day-to-day observations of the field naturalist is usually sufficient to generate a sense of care and responsiveness to the biotic community. It is a matter of ‘‘compelling representation.’’ The style of arriving at moral insight exemplified by Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, for example, is interestingly similar to the style of moral deliberation we see in Carol Gilligan’s subjects in In a Different Voice.
Annie Dillard’s explorations at Tinker Creek do not provide the data for religious deliberation; they are themselves religious observances. This is faith in a larger sense. Such a faith does not involve belief in specific doctrines; rather, it consists in living this life, and walking on this earth, in a sacred manner. ‘‘The question from agnosticism is, Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?’’ Faith in this larger sense does not start with the assumption that God is good—or that there is a God; it acknowledges the possibility that we may be ‘‘dealing with a maniac.’’ ‘‘[F]aithlessness is a … massive failure of imagination. ’’
The imagination which is faith reveals, perhaps, that ‘‘the creek is the mediator, benevolent, impartial, subsuming my shabbiest evils and dissolving them, transforming them into live moles, and shiners, and sycamore leaves.’’ Think of a faith and imagination large and expansive enough to say this, not as conceit, but as truth—that is, as true symbol, that which, emerging from genuine encounter, carries, sustains, and shapes thought. Tinker Creek transforms, subsumes, the concepts of grace and forgiveness—and God. The creek forgives—by dissolving evils, transforming them into sycamore leaves. If this sounds odd, Annie Dillard suggests, we might wash ourselves in the waters of Tinker Creek, any creek, and muse on the traditional concept of God on some true dawn, some true morning in our lives.
It is a measure of the naturalism and contextualism of Annie Dillard’s thought that, given the concerns that provide the focus for her book, Gnosticism is not a temptation. She notes the evidence that points the Gnostic way:
I have to acknowledge that the sea is a cup of death and the land is a stained altar stone. We the living are survivors huddled on flotsam, living on jetsam. We are escapees. We wake in terror, eat in hunger, sleep with a mouthful of blood.
And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fjords cutting into the granite cliffs of mystery….
But she doesn’t take the bait:
The thistle is part of Adam’s curse.… But does the goldfinch eat thorny sorrow with the thistle, or do I? If this furling air is fallen, then the fall was happy indeed.… Creation itself was the fall, a burst into the thorny beauty of the real.
She agrees with Pascal that ‘‘Every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true,’’ but she prefers not to take this in a Gnostic direction: ‘‘It could be that God has not absconded but spread.’’ Transcendental theology figures into her argument only as ‘‘a relatively narrow column of God as air.’’
There is nothing of the masculine drama of alienation from God in Annie Dillard, and nothing of the related masculine penchant for taking the transcendent, the spiritual, the abstract as the real, the true, what is of value—and the opposite of these as less real, the source of error, of less value. A nice example is her notion of the gratuitousness of the things of this world—not contingency, but gratuitousness. For the most part (as in Aquinas’s third proof for the existence of God) the dominant Western theological tradition has acknowledged and even insisted upon the contingency of this world in contrast to the presumed necessity of God’s existence. But its gratuitousness is as often, if implicitly, denied. Western theology is marked by its urgent need to understand the world as required, as necessitated by God. It is as though the world is something of an embarrassment to the masculine theological mind, an anomaly, a surd which must be assigned a derivative necessity and intelligibility in virtue of its relationship to the necessary existence and goodness of God—as though to say that only the transcendent is real and that this world should be here, could be here, only if it must be here, only if God’s existence or goodness requires it.
For Annie Dillard, on the other hand, the starting point is the gratuitousness and extravagance of the world’s ‘‘spotted and speckled detail.’’
I would like to see it all, to understand it, but I must start somewhere, so I try to deal with the giant water bug in Tinker Creek and the flight of three hundred redwings from an Osage orange.… And it occurs to me more and more that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous. The giant water bug’s predations, the frog’s croak, the tree with the lights in it are not in any real sense necessary per se to the world or to its creator. Nor am I.… [I]t accumulates in my mind as an extravagance of minutiae. The sheer fringe and network of detail assumes primary importance. That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about the creation.… The first question—the one crucial one—of the creation of the universe and the existence of something as a sign and an affront to nothing, is a blank one. I can’t think about it. So it is to the fringe of that question that I affix my attention, … the intricacy of the world’s spotted and speckled detail.
For her, theology in the dominant tradition of the West is not a deposit of faith with which she proposes to reconcile the giant water bug’s predations, but a source of understandings provided by mythical tracings. All routes back to—and through—that ‘‘curved sleep’’ are mythical tracings on and in the ‘‘looped soil’’ of our lives and land. ‘‘What I have been after all along is not an explanation but a picture.’’
Annie Dillard is not...
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Perceptions of Nature: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
She stared as if she were about to tell me that she dreamed last night of hanging in space above our blue planet. With her leather jacket, loose wool pants, serious hiking boots, and a collecting pouch slung over her neck, she looked the perfect image of the woodswoman I desperately wanted to become. Her cornsilk hair was lit up like a lamp. Annie Dillard sat on a ledge in a clearing, beckoning the reader to come into her woods. I held her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on my lap in the back of an old bus, headed for Canyonlands.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of three books I took into the wilderness for a semester of expeditions in the Rockies. Edward Abbey’s
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