Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1331
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 endless: ‘‘I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one’’; ‘‘a book I read when I was young recommended an easy way to find caterpillars to rear’’; ‘‘I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book.’’ Dillard is clearly an insatiable reader, but the reading is not an end in itself. She uses what she reads to direct her gaze, and help her process what she sees.
Reading about travel is a guilty pleasure for both writers. Thoreau tells readers that he turned to this kind of reading while he was building his cabin:
‘‘I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.’’ Dillard, too, reads stories of travel and exploration by ‘‘Knud Rasmussen, Sir John Franklin, Peter Freuchen, Scott, Peary, and Byrd; Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden, and Milton Sublette; or Daniel Boone singing on his blanket in the Green River Country.’’ (It seems notable that there are no women on Dillard’s list.) But she reads these books in the winter, when there is not much happening outside. Balance is important. It is pleasant to read about going places, but how much better to actually go.
Dillard is nagged by the need to strike this balance. On the one hand, the written word aids in understanding: ‘‘At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.’’ On the other hand, the very act of committing a sensation to words strips it. Dillard describes the moment of patting the puppy and being in the present, and then realizes, ‘‘the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.’’ She finds any kind of writing irresistible, and even shares a passage from an article about building a snowman, but then wonders, ‘‘Why, why in the blue-green world write this sort of thing? Funny written culture, I guess; we pass things on.’’
Why write things down? An essential question for a writer. One reason is to share information, to pool knowledge. Dillard remarks that ‘‘the world is full of creatures that for some reason seem stranger to us than others, and libraries are full of books describing them.’’ But reading is not enough. She continues, ‘‘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.’’ To learn the names, Dillard consults her books, but to find the meanings she must put them aside.
Dillard never resolves the issue. In ‘‘Fecundity,’’ she is as ambivalent as ever about her books. Emotions, she writes, do more harm than good because they cause people to question and challenge and mourn. She proposes a solution, then takes it back: ‘‘let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave the library then, go back to the creek.… You first.’’ A paragraph later, she repeats the idea of abandoning books: ‘‘I must go down to the creek again. It is where I belong, although as I become closer to it, my fellows appear more and more freakish, and my home in the library more and more limited. Imperceptibly at first, and now consciously, I shy away from the arts, from the human emotional stew.’’ Her will is to empty herself of thought and knowledge, to stand empty and ready. But she is a writer; ironically, readers know about her wish to turn away from the written word because she wrote it down.
Historians of nature writing state that this reliance on books is common, and desirable. Richard G. Lillard, in an essay titled ‘‘The Nature Book in Action,’’ defines nature writing and the nature writer. He explains that ‘‘The nature book is a personal statement, often charmingly literary, told at firsthand by a well-rounded observer who is as much at home in the humanities as in the natural sciences, especially the biological studies.… The nature writer studies both books and nature.’’ Those who come after these writers, who are enriched by reading their works, benefit from the writers’ deft balancing act of books and nature. But Thoreau and Dillard help readers see that reading a work of nature writing is an empty exercise, unless it prompts them to get up and go outside.
Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Bily is an instructor of writing and literature at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9057
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 after a reductive account, an understanding of this world as a manifestation of God’s goodness, for example. Nor is she after a consistent account:
The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another … with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle.
With the Principle of Plenitude and the Great Chain of Being it is the fit that counts, the a priori dictates of unity and a transcendental theology; with Annie Dillard it is the fact or experience of the ‘‘free, fringed tangle’’ that matters. Her method is not that of generalization; nor is her aim to find unity in diversity, a coherent and consistent account. Rather she wishes to paint a satisfying picture—where satisfaction consists in fidelity—a picture intricate enough, detailed enough, to answer to her desire to be so tuned to Tinker Creek that her questions are answered, her needs met, by narrative or ceremonial continuances of her mythical tracings on and in the ‘‘looped soil’’ of her life and land.
Terror and a Beauty Insoluble: Twin Fjords in the Granite Cliffs of Mystery
The problem—emblematically—is with insects:
Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect—the possibility of fertile reproduction—is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.
Several things are notable about this passage. First, that Annie Dillard’s concern—or one of them—is about insects. Second, that her concern has little or nothing to do with the effect of insects on humans but with the sheer manner of their existence: ‘‘not only did the creator create everything, but … he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.’’ Third, that her concern is not with the creator’s goodness but with the creator’s reasonableness. Fourth, looking beyond the quoted passage, we are not shown either the reasonableness or the goodness of God. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not a theodicy. While theodicies begin with a fixed point, the goodness (or reasonableness) of God, in this text God is anything but a fixed point, a theological given. The term ‘God’ functions, in part, as a stand-in for whatever account emerges from her exploration. It organizes the inquiry; it influences not only perception but also the kind of reflectiveness woven into her experience.
Is the use of the dominant tradition in this way fruitful, revelatory? To answer this question we must answer another: What ultimately gives shape to Dillard’s text, determines its texture? Is the text—though it makes use of the tradition—faithful to its empirical grounding (or watering) in Tinker Creek? Does Annie Dillard’s use of the tradition help to articulate her experience, bring it to narrative or ceremonial coherence and intelligibility? Or does it function (as does totalizing discourse) to block perception? What shapes the discourse, what is it faithful to? To an a priori theological metaphysics or to the texture of experience? My sense is that the texture of experience shapes the discourse and that the use of the tradition serves to mark and shape that discourse as sacred.
So, emblematically, the problem is with insects, the intelligibility within a religious ambience of the world with its ‘‘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 question concerns what it might mean to walk in a sacred manner, in the fecund world of insects in which ‘‘every glistening egg is a memento mori.’’ The first step is to gather the data, and to note clearly one’s responses to that world.
I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.… Every glistening egg is a memento mori … [T]he notion of the infinite variety of detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one; in complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance. But all this leaves something vital out of the picture. It is not one pine I see, but a thousand. I myself am not one, but legion. And we are all going to die.
In this repetition of individuals is a mindless stutter, an imbecilic fixedness that must be taken into account. The driving force behind all this fecundity is a terrible pressure I must also consider, the pressure of birth and growth, the pressure that splits the bark of trees and shoots out seeds, that squeezes out the egg and bursts the pupa, that hungers and lusts and drives the creature relentlessly toward its own death. Fecundity, then, is what I have been thinking about, fecundity and the pressure of growth. Fecundity is an ugly word for an ugly subject. It is ugly, at least, in the eggy animal world. I don’t think it is for plants.
This gathering of data is infused with valuation and with elements of the cultural tradition that connects her to human history. What emerge are patterns, smaller and larger coherences. There is no attempt to force these recognitions into a larger unity. She does not pull God’s reasonableness or goodness out of the hat; nor does she go in the other, equally popular, direction of offering a value-neutral scientific account (‘‘This is the way the world is … ’’), eliding value, treating it as a subjective overlay on world-description.
The patterns that concern Annie Dillard are of two kinds. The articulation of these and the refusal to join them in some higher synthesis are refrains throughout the text, as though both the recognition and the refusal are at the heart of the matter. ‘‘Terror and a beauty insoluble,’’ she says, ‘‘are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things.… No culture explains, no bivouac offers real haven or rest.’’ Variations on this theme:
What geomancy reads what the windblown sand writes on the desert rock? I read there that all things live by a generous power and dance to a mighty tune; or I read there that all things are scattered and hurled, that our every arabesque and grand jeté is a frantic variation on our one free fall.
Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time.
Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time.
Related to the ontological/valuational categories of ‘‘beauties’’ and ‘‘horrors’’ are the terms ‘mystery’ and ‘knowledge,’ respectively. ‘‘Knowledge,’’ she says, ‘‘does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights.’’ Likewise, ‘‘it would be too facile to pull everything out of the hat and say that mystery vanquishes knowledge.’’ She considers and rejects the standard modes of reconciliation. She says, for example, that
Although my vision of the world of the spirit would not be altered a jot if the cedar [the tree with the lights in it] had been purulent with galls, those galls actually do matter to my understanding of this world. Can I say then that corruption is one of beauty’s deep-blue speckles, that the frayed and nibbled fringe of the world is a tallith, a prayer shawl, the intricate garment of beauty? It is very tempting, but I honestly cannot.
I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.
Annie Dillard’s argument does not move toward an ontologically or epistemologically unified account: ‘‘Sub specie aeternitatis this may all look different.… Here may not be the cleanest, newest place, but that clean timeless place that vaults on either side of this one is noplace at all.’’ Such an account is born of alienation and arrogant perception. Rather, her words are addressed to the specific circumstances of her ‘‘fellow survivors’’; they emerge from, and give rise to, loving perception and respect. ‘‘Let us love the country of here below,’’ she says with Simone Weil, ‘‘It is real; it offers resistance to love.’’
Dillard considers the splitting apart of nature and culture and the devaluation of the former:
It looks for the moment as though I might have to reject this creek life unless I want to be utterly brutalized. Is human culture with its values my only real home after all? … This direction of thought brings me abruptly to a fork in the road where I stand paralyzed, unwilling to go on, for both ways lead to madness.
Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.
The first fork, the Pascalian/Gnostic/Existentialist fork, is rejected outright; its masculinist transcendentalism and dualism haven’t enough purchase on her soul, with its particular sense of the spiritual geography of Tinker Creek.
The second fork—‘‘that creation itself is blamelessly, benevolently askew by its very free nature, and that it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss’’—although she prefers it to the first, is nonetheless problematic, the best of ‘‘two ridiculous alternatives.’’ What is ridiculous, it seems, is understanding this fork as an explanation, a theodicy. As a picture, however, which is what she says she has been after all along, it works; it establishes the context in which she can explore what I take to be the central concern of this work: the (or a) proper human response to the situation in which we find ourselves, namely, as survivors wandering awed on a wreck we have (or might) come to care for. The thought that our ‘‘emotions are the curse, not death,’’ ‘‘that it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss,’’ is mentioned not as theodicy—she is quite aware that there would still be a theological problem (‘‘What creator would be so cruel, not to kill otters [or humans], but to let them care?—but as datum, an answer to which we must respond. And what that answer seems to require is something between lobotomy and Gnostic rejection of this world. And what that leaves us with, she says, is the unanswerability of the ‘‘old, old mystery,’’ the problem of evil. What she has done is precisely not solve or dissolve that problem but place it center stage as definitive of what it is to be a pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The tension this creates takes shape as a (perhaps the) central existential fact of her spiritual landscape. This tension is poignantly expressed in the words of an Eskimo shaman, whom she quotes: ‘‘ife’s greatest danger lies in the fact that men’s food consists entirely of souls.’’ As far as theodicy goes—or redemption, or saving knowledge—what the world offers is this:
There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed, your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock; seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. ‘‘Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.’’ That’s the catch. If you can catch it it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you’ll come back, for you will come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for—dribbling and crazed. The waters of separation, however lightly sprinkled, leave indelible stains. Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love? But no. Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone. You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac.
Walking in a Sacred Manner
A central concern of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the articulation of a ceremonial response to ‘‘terror and a beauty insoluble.’’ One of my concerns in the preceding sections has been to provide a context for the articulation of that response, to place it as a naturalized postmodernist theology, the point of which is to preserve openness to contradiction and difference, a place in which the Other can be recognized, truly seen, and in which one can, in the presence of this world, this creek, awaken. ‘‘We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.’’ It is in this context that we can understand the radicalness of Annie Dillard’s use of ceremony and ritual.
As a touchstone for this understanding I look at another contemporary account of ceremony, that which emerges in an interview with the West Coast poet, Gary Snyder:
[INTERVIEWER]: Whether you’re eating vegetables, meat, or sand, you’re involved in the ripoff [the exploitation of nature].
SNYDER: I don’t think eating is ripping off. We can’t look at it that way … because we’re edible too.
[INTERVIEWER]: But I’m not offering myself up to somebody as food.
SNYDER: You’d better. Sooner or later.… If you look at life itself as a ripping off process, then your metaphysics are hopeless. Your only choice then is to reject the world and opt entirely for spirit. Which has meant historically to neglect the biological and to really rip off nature consequently.… But you hit on a very sensitive thing, which is that relationship with food. If you think of eating and killing plants or animals to eat as an unfortunate quirk in the nature of the universe, then you cut yourself from connecting with the sacramental energy-exchange, evolutionary mutual-sharing aspect of life … that sharing of energies, passing it back and forth, which is done by literally eating each other. And that’s what communion is.… That’s one of the healthiest things about the primitive worldview is that it’s solved one of the critical problems of life and death. It understands how you relate to your food. You sing to it. You pray to it, and then you enjoy it.
Snyder invokes a gift economy, typical of tribal communities, in which goods and services flow through the community (and between the human community and the rest of nature) as gifts rather than as commodities for which we barter or contract in the marketplace. In gift communities the gift (from other people or nonhuman nature) must be consumed, it cannot pile up like capital in the hands of the recipient; and it must be passed on—it increases and confers its benefits on the community and its individuals only by being passed on. In the case of food, literally, and in the case of much else metaphorically, we die into one another’s lives and live one another’s deaths.
The view invoked by Snyder’s interviewer in his claim that eating is a ripping-off process is, by contrast, a market economy notion. The ‘‘right to life’’ which we violate when we eat plants and animals, as with individual rights in general, is a means of stockpiling capital in the form of potentially satisfiable interests or desires, possible satisfactions which might accrue to the individual. On one level, then, we can understand Snyder as recommending a return to the notion of a gift economy as the organizing principle of community.
What, however, of the fact that in Snyder’s view the passing of the gift is conceived of ritualistically, as communion; and what of his endorsement of the ‘‘primitive worldview’’ which understands our relationship to food as involving singing to it, praying to it, and then enjoying it? Much of this can be readily understood as part of the acknowledgment involved in the giving and receiving of gifts. But there is a note that isn’t captured in saying this, a slight air of tragedy, some acknowledgment of the fact that though we may die into one another’s lives, we nonetheless die. There is some suggestion that it isn’t simply and straightforwardly all right to kill and consume other creatures. There is also the suggestion that this can be made all right, but only by permission given from the animal. Or, perhaps, the thought is that there are certain dangers inherent in living the death of another, dangers which can be avoided only by the performance of certain rituals. Is the thought that other creatures possibly have an equal claim, or right, to life which can be overridden only by permission?
We might speculate that in a tribal situation in which there is as yet no conception of moral hierarchy, ritual expresses the beginnings of a tradition of individual rights. In such a society the sense that there are claims or rights which others might press upon us must be dealt with by supplication or the asking of permission. Perhaps ritual atonement, appeasement, and supplication are the precursors within an egalitarian society—where, also, the nonhuman has equal status with the human—of the moral hierarchy established by a theory of rights and its associated rank-ordering of values.
On this speculative account ritual straddles two worlds and is ambiguous for that reason. It has one foot in the contemporary world of moral hierarchy and human domination. It has another foot in the tribal world of usufruct—the use of the fruit. The bridge between these two worlds is, oddly enough, the concept of equality, the idea that other creatures and I are morally on a par. This is a highly abstract concept and poses a problem for usufruct which is resolved by the notion of ritual supplication, permission, courtesy, and the idea of reciprocity in the web of relationships between people and nonhuman nature. There is a sense in which these rituals are also highly abstract; that is, both the problem and the solution presuppose a certain conceptual and emotional distancing from the ongoing activities of eating, birthing, and dying. Such ritual points to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world, but it also points to dilemmas not revealed by this deeper understanding but, rather, created by it, and to solutions which accentuate the distance and alienate us from the Eskimo shaman’s observation that ‘‘Life’s greatest danger lies in the fact that men’s food consists entirely of souls.’’
Ritual, on this speculative account, is a crossroads. Moving from ancient to modern times it represents a movement away from embeddedness in the flow of life toward an abstract and managerial relation toward it. Ritual, as a way of establishing relationships to nature, at the present time, however, represents, at its best, a movement back toward a more caring response to the world, an attempt to acknowledge the presence of a world for which it is possible, and good, to care.
In my account of ritual and ceremony—seeing in their early manifestations the seeds of moral hierarchy and in their contemporary manifestations the hope of a return to a more egalitarian, nondomineering relationship with one another and with nonhuman nature—I have bypassed an empirical investigation of their actual function in traditional cultures. The account does allow us, however, to discern a particular danger inherent in contemporary uses of ritual and ceremony.
One of our inheritances from modernism (though it is not unique to modernism) is the totalizing and colonizing use of discourse for the advancement of cultural imperialism on all levels of society. Myth, ritual, and ceremony are, as this century has shown, enlisted into the cause of cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is currently quite pervasive in the dominant culture, even among those who take themselves to be combatting it. This has become clear, for example, in recent criticism of white, middle-class feminist theory by women of color, criticism that has revealed pervasive totalizing, colonizing, and, therefore, racist tendencies within that body of theory. In another place I have discussed similar tendencies within male-authored radical environmentalism. The fact that such proclivities are found at the very heart of liberatory movements has been one of the motives for the development of feminist ‘‘standpoint epistemologies’’ and a ‘‘politics of difference.’’ It is in this context that I read Annie Dillard’s use of ceremony and ritual as a means for both acknowledging and living with contradiction and difference.
It is in her mystical passages and in her use of ritual and ceremony that Annie Dillard seems most susceptible to a traditional theological reading. And yet it is just here, when read in the light of her naturalized and contextualized theology, that she often seems to depart most radically from the tradition out of which she speaks.
Judith Plaskow has given us a detailed account of the ways in which the theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich provide us, not with an account of the human condition and redemption from that condition, but, rather, an account of a typically male form of alienation. This is not the place to argue for the view, but it can be plausibly maintained that most (if not all) of the salvific techniques of the major world religions were designed to redeem the alienated masculine ego, to undo the excessive focus on the self which leads to, or constitutes, that alienation. I emphasize in my portrait the alienation resulting from that self-centeredness, rather than the self-centeredness itself, because it points to the fact that most redemptive strategies envision the overcoming of alienation as the overcoming of difference. The overcoming of difference takes many forms, but basically, alienating difference is seen as ultimately illusory. One might say that in the interests of redemption, the world is colonized. A colonizing understanding of the world—the interior counterpart of the imperialism which has come to be characteristic of the ‘‘civilized’’ world—is internalized as part of the redemptive process.
Of course, such ‘‘redemptive’’ processes are not truly redemptive. Only a politics of difference will make possible the genuine redemption of members of the dominant culture (and the correlative liberation of oppressed cultures).
Annie Dillard’s use of mysticism, ritual, and ceremony can plausibly be read, not as a way of overcoming difference, but of preserving it, of resisting the temptations of colonizing consciousness. Much of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a meditation on difference—not on dualism—and a refusal to resolve the threat of difference through the colonization of that difference. Yet the question remains: How does one live with the consciousness of difference revealed in Annie Dillard’s encounters at Tinker Creek? This is the role of ceremony and ritual in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Ceremony and ritual (the ‘‘waters of separation’’) provide means of living with the understanding that we are ‘‘dealing with a maniac.’’
Seen in this light the mystical images scattered throughout the text take on new significance:
I am an explorer, then, and I am also a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself.… I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.
The image of the hunt is not used to identify with the hunted animal as a condition of overcoming alienation from it. Its sense, rather, is brought out in the image that follows, that of being played on like a pipe, being pummeled by barely sheathed power. It is further clarified in the next sentence by the reference to Eskimo breath-singing, in which the singers sit ‘‘cross-legged on the ground, mouth on mouth, blowing by turns each other’s throat cords, making a low, unearthly music.’’ The image is not one of incorporation, assimilation, or of destruction and domination, but one of openness to the Other, what Jessica Benjamin has called ‘‘genuine self-other recognition’’—that discovery and understanding of the self which occurs within the space provided by clear perception of, and acceptance by, the Other. This reading also makes sense of the following passage:
I have never understood why so many mystics of all creeds experience the presence of God on mountaintops. Aren’t they afraid of being blown away? … It often feels best to lay low, inconspicuous, instead of waving your spirit around from high places like a lightning rod. For if God is in one sense the igniter, … God is also in another sense the destroyer.… You get a comforting sense, in a curved, hollow place, of being vulnerable to only a relatively narrow column of God as air.
This states precisely the distance that separates Annie Dillard from those traditions in which redemption does consist in being ‘‘blown away,’’ destroyed by God. Unlike the mountaintop, which is the place of self-obliteration, the place of passing over into unity with God, or the place of reception of the mind of Christ, the ‘‘curved, hollow place’’ is the space of genuine self-other recognition.
But Annie Dillard does talk of selflessness in rather traditional ways, such as when she speaks of finding a balance and repose by retreating ‘‘not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses.… I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone’’; or when she says that ‘‘experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow’’; or in the following passage:
The death of the self … is no violent act. It is merely the joining of the great rock heart of the earth in its roll. It is merely the slow cessation of the will’s sprints and the intellect’s chatter….
These passages, however, are not joined to a metaphysical system in which selflessness is understood as, for example, union with God or Brahman, or identification with the divine logos. In these systems the ‘‘cessation of the will’s sprints and the intellect’s chatter’’ and the overcoming of alienation are achieved by the internalization of a metaphysics of unity—an internalization that blocks genuine recognition and acceptance of difference by colonizing that difference. (Notice the image of the joining of the ‘‘great rock heart of the earth.’’)
Themes of longing and denial are also pervasive, particularly in the last part of the work, in which mystical and ritual aspects come to the fore. But the objective of the mystical and ritual honing of the spirit is not to overcome longing, not to achieve some desired rest in unity, but to clarify longing, to make of it an instrument of perception and recognition:
It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.
I am buoyed by a calm and effortless longing, an angled pitch of the will, like the set of the wings of the monarch which climbed a hill by falling still.
In the two central mystical experiences of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—the experience of the cedar tree on which shone ‘‘the steady, inward flames of eternity’’ and the pure experience of the present when patting the puppy—pride of place, for Annie Dillard, goes to the experience of the tree with lights (‘‘The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it.’’) Nonetheless, ‘‘on both occasions I thought, with rising exultation, this is it, this is it’’ and ‘‘although the door to the tree with the lights in it was opened from eternity, as it were, and shone on that tree eternal lights, it nevertheless opened on the real and present cedar. It opened on time.’’
I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber.… A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.
The honing of the spirit is a preparation for the gift of the tree with the lights in it; but, more importantly, it is the austerity necessary for living with difference, the ‘‘twin fjords in the granite cliffs of mystery,’’ the ‘‘horns of the world’s rock altar.’’
Chapters on clarity of perception (‘‘Seeing,’’ ‘‘The Present,’’ and ‘‘Stalking’’; chapters 2, 6, and 11) immediately precede chapters (‘‘Winter,’’ ‘‘Spring,’’ and ‘‘Nightwatch’’; 3, 7, and 12) which can be read as preparations of the soul for its meditations on terror and beauty in the chapters which follow (‘‘The Fixed,’’ ‘‘Intricacy’’/‘‘Fecundity,’’ and ‘‘The Horns of the Altar’’; 4, 8/10, and 13). The first sequence brings the problem—emblematically, that of insects—into focus; the second refuses totalizing answers, leaving in place the ‘‘twin fjords in the granite cliffs of mystery’’; the third gathers up the themes of the first two in a reprise in which the theoretical conclusion of the second sequence is affirmed in this world: ‘‘Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love’’ (quotation from Simone Weil).
It is in this context that we should listen to the last two chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These two (‘‘Northing’’ and ‘‘The Waters of Separation’’) constitute a fourth sequence, similar to the other three but in which the seeing, the preparation, and the understanding are deepened, embedded in a ritualized or ceremonial relationship to the world necessary for their acceptance and maintenance in good faith, necessary in order that the perception that ‘‘You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac’’ not slide into banality or be subsumed (totalized, colonized) by a ‘‘higher’’ understanding in which difference disappears, in which the Otherness of this world is colonized and we need no longer fear that one night ‘‘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.’’ In ‘‘Northing’’ we read:
I have glutted on richness and welcome hyssop [used in purification rites].… I stand under wiped skies directly, naked, without intercessors.
In this way true seeing, true preparation of the soul for life along Tinker Creek is accomplished.
And meditation on the twin fjords in the granite cliffs of mystery (in ‘‘The Waters of Separation’’) is itself a ceremony:
This Tinker Creek! It was low today, and clear. On the still side of the island the water held pellucid as a pane, a gloss on runes of sandstone, shale, and snail-inscribed clay silt; on the faster side it hosted a blinding profusion of curved and pitched surfaces, flecks of shadow and tatters of sky. These are the waters of beauty and mystery, issuing from a gap in the granite world; they fill the lodes in my cells with a light like petaled water.… And these are also the waters of separation: they purify, acrid and laving, and they cut me off.
… I go my way, and my left foot says ‘‘Glory,’’ and my right foot says ‘‘Amen’’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.
Source Jim Cheney, ‘‘‘The Waters of Separation’: Myth and Ritual in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1990, pp. 41–63.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5872
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 Desert Solitaire and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac both waited in my pack. Up until two weeks before, I had never heard of Dillard, but the sheer force of her image on the cover convinced me to buy her book. The cover said Pilgrim was ‘‘a mystical excursion into the natural world.’’ So I read it first. I was glad the trip to Utah was a long one; I had to savor each paragraph three or four times and stare out the window at the rolling world, dumbfounded.
Dillard liked to exaggerate, I discovered, but she convinced me to believe her buoyant claims. Here was a power in language I had never heard before from a woman, or from anyone really—a freedom to be wild, deep, outrageous, exposed. Her voice was confident, striding, and then unashamedly silly. Dillard had me to herself for days.
I had enrolled in this outdoor education program to experience the ‘‘essence’’ of wilderness. I wanted an ultimate physical and spiritual baptism, to see if I, like Thoreau, could live deliberately. As I opened Dillard’s book I was looking for a like mind and an affirmation that life meant something serious. Surrounded by sixteen fellow students who spent the bus ride comparing beer brands and former girlfriends, I wanted to talk about evolution, plant dispersal, buzzards, sunsets. We were living in alpine meadows, at the base of desert cliffs, in silent caves, on the ridgelines of Wind River peaks—and I needed to exclaim wonder with someone. Annie Dillard hit that deepest chord.
‘‘I wish I could get hold of this country. I wish I could breathe it into my bones,’’ I wrote with pained longing from a cramped position in a wind-whipped tent. It was the late seventies. I had grown up reading Audubon magazine, hiking in the Adirondacks, and attending school assemblies on Earth Day. At college I had just lived for a year in Ecology House—where I finally learned what multi-national corporations did. Wilderness was being destroyed at an alarming rate, I discovered, and few people seemed to care. Hardly anyone had even heard of the Congressional debate over the future of Alaska when I knocked on their doors with a petition in hand. How could human culture survive if we eliminated the very foundation of what made us human? I wanted to experience wilderness before it was too late. I was ready to devote myself to saving it.
It’s no wonder that Dillard’s apparent ‘‘visionary naturalism’’ (to quote one critic) became a kind of intellectual template for me. Dillard went into the natural world to SEE, the way children and adults blind from birth with cataracts, and given sight through a special operation, suddenly could see the world for the first time. They found it either horrifying or beautiful. Dillard wanted to see the world freshly, as if for the first time—a flat plane of ‘‘color patches’’ raw and real—the world unfiltered by human senses, untrammeled by human meaning.
Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: ‘‘This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.’’
Undaunted by this information, Dillard set out to observe the universe as it really is. Both scientist and poet, she wrestled with the spiritual underpinnings of each field, gathering information by the armload to sort into colorful patterns. She was an explorer and stalker, she tells us, determined to discover the meaning of life—or rather, of suffering, pain, and death, for these are the phenomena that do not make coherent sense. Dillard wanted to get below and around human perceptual limitations. She would have liked to see God in the face if she could do so without dying.
On a first reading of Pilgrim, I identified with Dillard’s brave explorations. Life is rough, she seemed to say, and the world unfair and insane; all creatures suffer; we’re all in this together. She was willing to grant that the rest of life besides us humans mattered. She quoted John Cowper Powys, who said, ‘‘We have no reason for denying to the world of plants a certain slow, dim, vague, large, leisurely semiconsciousness.’’ Dillard added, ‘‘The patch of bluets in the grass may not be long on brains, but it might be, at least in a very small way, awake.’’
This writer was a keen observer, and a collector of incredible facts. Through her eyes natural history came alive for me. I was a biology student who wrote poetry; Dillard seemed to be a poet who conducted experiments on life. She waited on the bridge for hours to catch a glimpse of a muskrat. She stuffed praying mantis egg-cases in her pockets and attached them to a bush outside her window where she would be sure to see them hatch. She tried to untie a snakeskin; chased grasshoppers; shouted into the cliffs to see if the echo would disturb a bee foraging at her elbow.
All of life was worth noticing to Dillard because any piece of it could lead to revelation. The natural world, if we could only perceive it as it really is, would provide us with a door into mystery.
Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
This was the way I had been struck, too, I exclaimed to myself, one night in the mountains when I had perched on a rock mid-stream and stared at the stars until I could actually see the distances between them, and could feel the earth turn under me, a round speck I rode through a vast reality usually ignored. Dillard, ‘‘the arrowshaft,’’ went purposefully in life, seeking and readying herself for such moments of revelation. It was up to us, she exhorted by example or directive, to be seekers and look for the world’s meaning. She looked on faith and expected meaning to be real—on faith and on the non-rational knowledge of having seen the tree with the lights in it. Her seeking led her to eventually hold horror in one hand, beauty in the other, and to give thanks for all of it; she exits the book with her left foot saying ‘‘Glory’’ and her right foot ‘‘Amen’’: ‘‘in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.’’
I remember closing the book with reverence, breathless myself, convinced that I was parting from a soul-mate. Surely, I thought, if we were to meet, oh surely we would become the closest of friends. I could not have guessed then how wrong I was, and how young.
The following fall I returned to college for my senior year. Standing outside the English office, inspecting the schedule of new courses taped to the door, I nearly exploded with adrenaline when I read ‘‘A. Dillard.’’ Rushing to my house, I called Dillard immediately to ask her to be my advisor for an honors project I had just that minute created. We had a long talk, at the end of which she flatly refused, having inquired why in the world I would want to write about environmental problems when ‘‘it’s been done before.’’ The encounter deflated me for weeks.
The next semester I was on the class list for Dillard’s ‘‘Writing Poetry’’ course. It proved to be one of the most hypnotizing and frustrating I had as an undergraduate. At one point Dillard admitted that she would have called the course ‘‘Writing and Living Poetry’’—‘‘this class is really about writing as a way of life,’’ she said. ‘‘You must turn away from the pleasure of being one of the people of the world. The mission of endeavor is more important than the pleasure of life.’’ If we had a choice, she asked us, of going to Afghanistan or reading in the library, which should we do? I thought of her forays onto the island in Tinker Creek. I thought of her standing on the bridge over the creek one summer in a hurricane while the flood waters swirled a few inches below her feet. I thought of her longing to go ‘‘northing’’—to see the caribou for herself perhaps, hear their hoof joints clicking. Of course, I thought, GO, I would go. ‘‘The library,’’ she said.
When Dillard first walked into that classroom I had been struck by how young she looked—too young to have absorbed so much wisdom. Her hair was long and loose like many of the young women in the class. She was soft-skinned but put a hard set in her jaw when she wanted to. She liked to wear hats. She talked about softball. She liked to smoke at the head of the wide rectangular conference table around which we thirty students sat, and willingly, I forgave her. She remained distant and private about her own life, and devoted herself to the class. She was tough, demanding: every poem came back with comments all over it. In the margins of mine she admonished me to ‘‘eschew sentimentality.’’ By the middle of the semester I finally got the hang of her all-encompassing definition for that oft-repeated word—anything that had been done before: anything that came too easily; anything that borrowed its power from the world, instead of creating its own; anything that was too comfortable, that did not dare and plunge.
One day she asked how many of us would be writing poems ten years from now. The week before we had heard, ‘‘The people who are accomplishing things are the people sitting in their rooms missing life.’’ Most of the hands in the room went up. She was surprised; her eyes softened a bit. ‘‘Good for you,’’ I think she said. The look on her face was pained, pleased, worried—writing mattered too much. I think we made her day. I think we made her anxious.
Confronted each week by such declarations, I soon wondered what had happened to the woodswoman I had first met. Hadn’t she stalked a coot all of one afternoon, listened to insects, attained a glorious moment while patting a puppy? Her classroom directives for a strict intellectualism did not fit the sense-based ‘‘experiential’’ image I had of her from the book. In an interview with Mike Major for America in 1978, Dillard set the record straight: ‘‘… people want to make you into a cult figure because of what they fancy to be your life style, when the truth is your life is literature! You’re writing consciously, off of hundreds of index cards, often distorting the literal truth to achieve an artistic one … [People] think it happens in a dream, that you just sit on a tree stump and take dictation from some little chipmunk!’’
My new role model appeared progressively more disciplined, more severe, and more driven than I would have guessed from reading Pilgrim, but she was no environmentalist. One day she commented that she didn’t see how any of us would want to be vegetarians; it took too much time away from writing to cook that stuff. She showed no allegiance to any political causes that I could detect. Her sole cause was Meaning and Art.
We budding poets learned that our purpose was to take the whole world as material and bend it to make Art. Art objects had to cohere, with every part utterly clear and the meanings interconnected. Even if the intent was to portray the meaninglessness of the world, the artist did it ‘‘the usual way, the old way, by creating a self-relevant artistic whole,’’ by imposing ‘‘a strict order upon chaos,’’ wrote Dillard in Living by Fiction, a book she was working on while teaching our class. ‘‘In this structural unity lies integrity, and it is integrity which separates art from nonart.’’
Pilgrim is a non-fiction work with fiction in it. Its author sought the integrity of the very world, and so blurred her own distinction between art and nonart. One expectation behind many of her questions in this book is that life should behave coherently. Conscious observant seeking should reveal the world to be an art object itself—unified, ordered, and resplendent. But the chaotic world resists the attempt to impose order on it, presenting instead raw pain, illogical death, and suffering. Thus, the world she sees engenders Dillard’s ever more determined struggle to find Reason at the foundation of life.
Artistic energy in a work is derived from the material, instructed this teacher. You need real objects in the real world to write successfully, but writing, ultimately, is about something abstract. For Dillard, the relationship between time and eternity stimulated her work. ‘‘I’ve devoted my life to trying to figure this out,’’ she said, implying that each of us in the class should find an equally worthy goal and stick to it fiercely as a life project.
Looking so closely at eternity, Dillard was torn between beauty and horror throughout her ‘‘mystical excursion’’ in Pilgrim. The logos force compelled her to explore, analyze, and question the meaning of existence, and eventually to write a reasoning book. Logos also, necessarily, divided her from the very world she sought, while the force of eros compelled her toward integration. Pilgrim is Dillard’s effort to find a balance point between reason and intuition, classification and unification. As an art work, the book rings and reverberates with its own energy—but can the inner light of mystical knowledge manifest into words on a page? Pilgrim records the attempt, but cannot validly represent Nature itself, for the author tips the balance in favor of logos. One could say, as did Kabir, a fifteenth-century poet (quoted by Lewis Hyde in The Gift ) that ‘‘… all our diseases/are in the asking of these questions.’’ Dillard remains too focused on her own idiosyncratic life projects to achieve a convincing epiphany by the end of her book. Although many readers admire her as both a naturalist and a mystic, she is primarily, fundamentally, an artist, and the core of her book is not about the whole of Nature, but only one small part—Pilgrim is about human beings.
Dillard immediately interprets every one of her observations in spiritual terms, in relation to human life. The ‘‘tree with the lights in it’’ represents spiritual revelation at its finest. The collapsed body of the frog eaten by a giant water bug becomes Dillard’s refrain for suffering and insane death. The Polyphemous moth reappears again and again—it hatched in a jar in young Dillard’s classroom and could not spread its beautiful wings to dry. Released an hour later, the crippled insect crawled down the school driveway at Dillard’s feet. She never forgot its crumpled useless wings, and the moth crawls into her narrative in Pilgrim repeatedly to symbolize the part we humans play in the fabric of nature’s horror. The creek—to whose side Dillard’s house is clamped like an ‘‘anchor-hold’’—is ‘‘continuous creation’’—pure energy, flux, the rush of the future and the promise of rebirth, while the mountains hold up eternity: ‘‘Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given’’. Dillard uses all the elements of her landscapes to search for God, just as she uses the library. The natural world is itself a text. This pilgrim uses Nature as a bridge to a direct relationship with God, following a long tradition of American nature writers, it is true, but failing to free herself from her own personality in her search. Dillard did not escape her perceptual filtering systems, and in some ways, she did not try to escape them. Some danger lies in taking this work as a model for natural history or metaphysical explorations, since it offers a specifically human-centered view of reality.
Dillard actually went out into the natural world to learn about her own unwilling role in the cycles of horror. This is the darker side of Thoreau and Melville that Dillard bravely explores, but she does not go quite far enough. This road can only lead to the embrace of paradox. On a first reading, under the huge skies of the Rockies, I was convinced that Dillard had found Meaning by the end of the book, as she sways with confidence, clasping beauty and horror together in thanksgiving. Reading Pilgrim again, I have to wonder whether her quest had actually ended—or did the book simply need finishing? Her exultations seem forced—an intellectually conscious construction, a loud shouting to drown out the tremendous fear that still tips the balance.
Other critics have noted Dillard’s unusual focus on the particular as a path toward the universal. In fact, this focus also limited her. She insisted on seeing creatures and plants as individuals with identities that are bounded by their skins or shells or coats. But this way of seeing overlooks some basic lessons of ecology. Individuals often do not matter in the network of energy exchanges as much as do whole systems. Is this necessarily a horrifying idea? Perhaps it is, if it threatens the human ego’s sense of identity and autonomy. Horror here is an artifact of the drive to differentiate the world into parts. The patterns that might really be operating in the world do not carry as much weight as the chaos Dillard chose to perceive. Life ought to make sense, she asserted, the way it makes sense to us.
Even though revelatory experiences succeed in dissolving the ego completely, if only for a brief moment, Dillard could not maintain the vision of the tree with the lights in it. Near the end of the book, she hoists herself out of despondency by focusing on a particular maple key seed, a symbol of renewal:
Hullo. I threw it into the wind and it flew off again, bristling with animate purpose, not like a thing dropped or windblown, pushed by the witless winds of convection currents …, but like a creature muscled and vigorous, or a creature spread thin to that other wind, the wind of the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, lighting, and raising up, and easing down. O maple key, I thought, I must confess I thought, o welcome, cheers.
But a little later she is gone again into the dark:
The waters of separation, however lightly sprinkled, leave indelible stains. Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love? But no. Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone. You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac.
At times, Dillard’s outward seeking attention led her to moments of truth. She saw the tree with the lights in it, or a monarch butterfly climbing a hill by coasting, or some other miracle of affirmation. But she never fully considered that the horrors she perceived might reflect her Self. Logos keeps us within the confines of our own minds, while eros breaks us out. Italo Calvino wrote, in The Uses of Literature, that ‘‘The power of modern literature lies in its willingness to give a voice to what has remained unexpressed in the social or individual unconscious: this is the gauntlet it throws down time and again. The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts. Dreams of progress and reason are haunted by nightmares.’’
Could it be that many of Dillard’s awestruck fears in confronting the alien world of insects come from her own unresolved experiences in her unconscious? Dillard’s own sorts of ghosts rise up in nearly every chapter, most frequently in the bodies of insects who do ‘‘one horrible thing after another.’’ In her recently published memoir, An American Childhood, Dillard described several incidents that had enormous emotional and psychological power over her. One day a dead, dried butterfly fell out from between the pages of a book she was reading. The wings and body crumbled to bits that slipped under her shirt and stuck to her chest. One day she returned home from summer vacation to discover a carrion beetle still alive in her insect collection box. Stuck through with a pin, it had been swimming in the air for days. The contribution she made to the crippling of the Polyphemous moth had haunted her ever since. Dillard’s unusual obsession with the horrors of the alien lives of insects could be, in part, an effort to accommodate the dark side of her own psyche. Is the terror that she faces the terror of nightmares rather than a directly perceived external reality? Perhaps the darker side of God, the face he will not show us, hides a uniquely human image.
I used to kill insects with carbon tetrachloride—cleaning fluid vapor—and pin them in cigar boxes, labeled, in neat rows. That was many years ago: I quit when one day I opened a cigar box lid and saw a carrion beetle, staked down high between its wing covers, trying to crawl, swimming on its pin. It was dancing with its own shadow, untouching, and had been for days. 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.
As much as Dillard insists that she focuses on the world, her witty, jerking, twisting, or joking language frequently draws attention to herself. Dillard’s portrait on the cover of Pilgrim was not entirely out of place, since she so often serves as subject as well as author of her book. Dillard the artist brings these ‘‘horror-show’’ images together; Dillard the poet makes the point.
Spiritual seeking and mystical experiences have been recorded and discussed for centuries. Dillard does not have much that is new to say about revelation, although her path, that focuses on the particular and the alien, is somewhat new. Her overriding concern with structured meaning and coherent integrity leads her more easily to her ego Self than to the gate of the raw universe.
In Living by Fiction Dillard wonders, ‘‘Do artists discover order, or invent it? Do they discern it, or make it up?’’ In Pilgrim, the question of whether Meaning is absolute seems urgent, for our very sanity might depend on the answer. We can explain the horrors of the world either because the God that made the world is a monster and our own ordered minds are freaks, or because the horrors are themselves projections or reflections of a Mind that is a monster in an ordered universe.
Although this woods explorer poses both sides of the question in Pilgrim, she addresses them unequally. More ready and willing to call God a maniac and the world insane, she resists abandoning her own ego to consider that life may not Mean in the way we human beings assume it to mean. Afraid to redefine her understanding of beauty, she asks, as might each of us, ‘‘Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?’’. She recounts an Eskimo tale in which an ugly old woman kills her beautiful daughter and skins the daughter’s face to wear as a mask, so as to fool her daughter’s husband into sleeping with her. ‘‘Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, that the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?’’ To revive herself from this tug of horror Dillard again focuses on the outer ‘‘real’’ world:
A wind rose, quickening; it seemed at the same instant to invade my nostrils and vibrate my gut. I stirred and lifted my head. No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax—how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? Come on, I say to the creek, surprise me; and it does, with each new drop. Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.
To see beauty as pure energy flung alongside time, one has to escape one’s sense of self; one has to swim in the wild, free, crazy, shifting creek. Dillard cannot stay there—perhaps none of us can. But we might come closer to seeing Meaning consistently if we were to step outside of the anthropomorphic framework Dillard assumes. Her insistence that the parts of the world fit misleads the reader, intentionally or not, into regarding the natural world as a forum for human Idea. The world can be taken and used in our art works, but the world remains mysterious, completely autonomous from that art.
Reading Pilgrim again, I am still swept by Dillard’s nimble language, by her wit and curiosity, by her sheer boldness to expose her fears, and by her intense driven vision. But I am also unsatisfied. Dillard’s god is too profoundly human. She expects a Him of some kind, related to her in some way, operating out of rationality. I do not feel the horror she does when considering how a female dragonfly consumes its mate, for instance—I am fascinated. This precise behavior may have made the species better able to adapt. Dillard’s horror is misplaced, for if life, like all matter, is simply made of light energy, then the particular forms life takes are not as significant as the flow of energy life participates in. Creatures consume other creatures; energy changes and transforms. Quite likely, the dragonfly does not experience death in the way that we would. The dragonfly’s death may not make sense on the level of the individual, but on the level of the community or the biosphere such a death may be quite beautiful. So, too, might a human death be beautiful, if it can be perceived as a transformation to another form. This idea, of course, is the ultimate challenge of faith, and the foundation of knowledge for mystics. We are all part of a pattern larger than we can ever see, more complex than we can rationally comprehend. What if the Meaning of it all—the ultimate pattern of the universe—is not discernible in human terms? What if the Meaning requires that we abandon our ‘‘human-ness’’ to understand it, or accept that it can never be expressed in rational words? For all her bravery, Dillard seems to resist this question, perceiving Nature as a collection of discrete parts that ought to illuminate her own life. In a world rapidly becoming dominated and destroyed by human needs and rational human meaning, it may be time to consider the human mind as the monster.
To allow for the possibility of an ultimate or absolute pattern in the universe, we should make an effort to leap outside of the limitations of rational perception. It is not simply a matter of seeing ‘‘color patches’’ in a flat plane. It may require us to abandon the notion of the sanctity of the ‘‘individual’’ above all else. Simplifying the reality of the natural world by disconnecting its interlocking parts will not lead to Truth. At her revelatory moments in Pilgrim, Dillard understands this, but a good deal of the book reveals her ego’s attempt to come to terms with its own destruction. The ultimate pattern of the universe—whatever it may be—seems to insist on such a dissolution.
People who come to this book, as I did originally, looking for an ecology of perception, will misread Pilgrim. Dillard sometimes too consciously exploits the natural world for her own artistic purposes. Today, in the late eighties, we need to consider more than humanly defined identity in our efforts to seek wisdom.
Interestingly, the authors of the other two books I carried to Canyonlands offer quite different ethical views of Nature. In Dessert Solitaire, Edward Abbey tells us he is not writing about the desert: ‘‘The desert is a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea. Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite. If a man knew enough he could write a whole book about the juniper tree.… Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material.’’ Dillard uses Tinker Creek as medium also, but doesn’t admit to this as clearly.
Abbey foresees that he will be criticized for dealing ‘‘too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things,’’ and for failing ‘‘to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence.’’ To this idea he responds: ‘‘Here I must confess I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any.’’ Abbey shies away from calling himself a mystic. He regards the world from a biocentric point-of-view—the natural world has intrinsic value wholly apart from its relationship to us. If this desert lover had to make a choice between killing a rare wildflower or killing a man, he probably would choose the man—or so he says.
In contrast, Aldo Leopold embodies another sort of vision, one that in my mind provides a more ethically coherent framework for a perception of the true ‘‘reality’’ of the natural world. In Sand County Almanac, the former forester proposes a Land Ethic based on the value of a whole system, including human beings. ‘‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’’ This is an ecocentric perspective, and it is also holistic because it does not perceive the world as composed of discrete parts. Isn’t this view, in so many words, the essence of mystical wisdom also? Leopold is considered by many the founder of environmental ethics, having successfully combined the romantic tradition of nineteenth-century naturalists with the rational knowledge of twentieth-century ecological sciences.
Life cannot be divided into parts at any level really, whether cell, organism, species, population, or community. Dillard persists in seeing horror because she insists on focusing on the particular too closely. She divides and separates and catalogues, and seems to forget that she has reduced her field of vision, and so perceives the horror as the real, the raw stuff of the universe.
Leopold may have had a better footing in addressing the question of whether artists perceive meaning, or make it up. Dillard tried to perceive meaning based on the existence of individual, discrete egocentric lives. Leopold said: ‘‘The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood.’’ Leopold proposed a shift in consciousness. When considering the human use of wilderness areas, he suggested that ‘‘Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.’’
At moments, Dillard succeeds in dissolving her Mind’s autonomy to perceive the patterns of which she is a part. At these moments, Pilgrims remains a gripping book, nearly accomplishing the impossible task of transmitting in words an experience that is outside logical processes, independent of time, and impenetrable by reason. For this effort on her part, I still close the book with reverence. Pilgrim is not a dangerous book—if the reader understands that the natural world portrayed in it is more a vision of a human mind, limited, self-focused, and filtering, than of the universe. We may yet find that it is human meaning that does not make sense. We may discover that the natural world is not here as a bridge for us, that our personal journeys are part of a pattern we will never fully comprehend.
Source: Elaine Tietjen, ‘‘Perceptions of Nature: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 101–13.
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