The Role of Reading in Dillard’s Vision of the Student of Nature
The term nature writing refers to the work of those writers since the time of Thoreau and Darwin who have consciously tried to go out into nature, look at it closely, and report what they see, without sentimentalizing or anthropomorphizing, without getting in the way of the natural events they observe, and without using nature as a backdrop for a political or social commentary. It is into this genre of writing that Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is usually classified. Dillard wrote her master’s thesis on Walden, and used Thoreau’s book as a model for her own.
Dillard’s reliance on Thoreau is interesting in many ways. Looking at both books together, readers can learn a great deal about how the world changed in the hundred or so years between publications. What information was available to Dillard that Thoreau did not have? What were the new advancements in science? What had naturalists observed and recorded about the behaviors of living creatures? To what extent can a person step out of the technological world and encounter nature purely, on its own terms? All of these are interesting questions, worthy of consideration. But this essay is more interested in something that binds Thoreau and Dillard together across the span of a hundred years: their lives as readers and writers. Although they believe that people must clear their minds and open their hearts to nature, without interjecting their intellect and their expectations, they turn again and again to books for confirmation or clarification of what they have seen.
Thoreau devotes an entire chapter to ‘‘Reading,’’ and mentions the subject throughout his book. He brings little with him to his cabin in the woods, but he does bring books, as he explains: ‘‘My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.’’ He keeps a copy of the Iliad on his table, and like most of his contemporaries he knows much of the Bible by heart. In Thoreau’s mind, studying books and studying nature are paired, and ‘‘We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old’’ as give up studying the classics. The written word, he says, ‘‘is the work of art nearest to life itself.’’
Yet a lover of the written word must be careful not to let books replace actual experience. Thoreau writes, ‘‘No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected … compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?’’ For his first summer in the cabin, Thoreau put his books away.
Dillard faces the same struggle to balance her essential trust in the written word and the need to get out and see. Unlike Thoreau, Dillard has a great variety of books to tempt her indoors. As she admits early on, she is not a scientist; much of what she knows about plants and animals she has learned through reading. The references to reading are 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...
(The entire section is 16,260 words.)