May 1, 1996
Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek explores the ways we perceive Nature and our connections to it. The novel is structured around series of epiphanic moments and images which attempt to define our relationship to Nature and how this view affects our treatments of it. These images also show how language attempts to describe Nature.
Dillard sees Nature as being “very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair” (16). Nature never waits around for us, and what we do glean and learn from it differs from time to time– moment to moment. The book is filled with such moments like “the wood duck flew away. I caught only a glimpse of something like a bright torpedo that blasted the leaves where it flew” (Dillard 3). In this description Nature proves to be a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” affair in that only the most brilliant and “blasting” glimpse of it can be momentarily seen; and it’s these moments that leave the longest mark on the mind.
These epiphanic moments, designed to illuminate new ways of seeing Nature, are what connect us to the natural world. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek teaches us that there are two things which separate humanity from Nature. The first is our ability to stalk out and “discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why” (Dillard 12). Here Dillard admits that humans are curious, and it is because of our curiosity that we have an intense desire to seek out and learn as much as we can about our surroundings while postulating theories as to why we live. “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of a mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf” (Dillard 9) and within our lifespan we are only able to catch so many learned things from Nature. But it is from these glimpses of Nature and how she sees it where Dillard gives us a insatisfiable thirst to know more and identify with our surroundings– Nature.
One of the ways that knowledge connects us to Nature is seen through the sprinklings and tidbits of fascinating facts and statistics about the world that Dillard includes within her novel. These facts portray the “intricacy and complexity of Nature” (Smith 19) as well as raising philosophical questions about our own connection with Nature. “I have read about the giant water bug,” the narrator tells us, “it is really the name of the creature, which is an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug” which sucks the life out of its victims (Dillard 6). Dillard chooses to include these facts as a means of connecting Nature to knowledge; for we use books and science to aid us in our understanding of the world that surrounds us and vice versa. This “giant water bug” passage uses textbook facts as one of the ways for narrator to better understand the world that she lives in. It also gives the narrator a means of going out into Nature and actively “see what I [can] see” (Dillard 11).
The other thing that separates us from Nature, according to Dillard, is our gift of sight; for we are able to persevere Nature and all it’s beauty in a multitude of ways. Pilgrim of Tinker Creek defines two different ways of seeing. The first is akin to “analysis and pry” (Dillard 31) where we must actively seek out what we want to see and “unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t notice it” (Dillard 30). This perception is seen as a close viewing of the surroundings which tunes out the minute details. To see in this light is to close one’s self from Nature and all the insights and epiphanies that the world offers.
The second way of seeing Nature is a very intimate study of one’s surroundings. This type of perception “involves letting go” and allows the narrator to see the world as if she walks “without a camera. … When I see this second way I am above all a unscrupulous observer” (Dillard 31). It is this second way that allows Dillard, and the narrator, to regard the moments of Nature as valued prizes like the pearl that cannot be sought (33). However, this sight isn’t something one can train themselves to do, it creeps upon you and allows you to “see truly” (Dillard 32) while feeling connected to Nature.
Dillard’s way of seeing the natural world incorporates both of these views. “When she looks for the wider view, what she finds are intricate details” (Ross-Bryant 85) describes each passage that Dillard writes about within Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. When the narrator is out in Nature she first takes in the surroundings, looking at the entirety of nature– the big picture. Then she sits and waits until her vision blends into the scene until her eyes are able to pick up every minute detail Nature offers. Then she returns back to the overall image and incorporates these new details back into the vision.
Dillard takes her way of seeing Nature one step further for she then contextualizes what she has learned back into her own personal thoughts. For example
A fog that won’t burn away drifts and flows across my field of vision. When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you don’t see the fog itself, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in dark shreds. So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity. I can’t distinguish the fog from the overcast sky; I can’t be sure if the light is direct or reflected. Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls.
We estimate now that only one atom dances alone in every cubic meter of intergalactic space. I blink and squint. What planet or power yanks Halley’s Comet out of orbit? We haven’t seen that force yet; it’s a question of distance, density, and the pallor of reflected light. We rock, cradled in the swaddling band of darkness. Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind. Last summer, in August, I stayed at the creek too late. (Dillard 19)
In this passage we see the interworkings of Dillard’s sight translated into language. First the narrator describes the scene as a whole, while Nature “flows across my field of vision.” She then moves into the fog describing the individual objects that make up the scene, with the “trees” and the dancing atoms and the darkness itself. Moving back out, she then incorporates this whole vision back into the outer picture with her questioning of Halley’s Comet. Finally, she makes the epiphany personal by stating, “last summer, in August, I stayed at the creek too late.”
It is in the language of these descriptions of moments where Dillard captures our relationship to Nature within Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. To write the images is to describe what one sees (Dillard 30) and the way that Dillard writes her methods of seeing Nature is a way for us to see the clearness through “a pervading fog” (Dillard 19). Her language creates epiphanic moments that define and examine Nature in all it’s beauty and horror, and it is the language that gives us a sense that these moments belong to us. Sandra Humble Johnson remarks in her book that upon reading Dillard she wanted to “discover why these moments became my moments” (Johnson ix) and it is through language and imagery where these moments become real and ours.
Dillard not only describes how Nature can be perceived but “she goes on to show how we must return [from it] and bring order to the experience with language. This is what it is to be human,” in that we relate shared experiences with Nature by means of words (Ross-Bryant 90). This is exactly what Pilgrim of Tinker Creek does. Each passage is carefully constructed around images that become blueprints for a particular way of seeing the world. Not only does Dillard describe her surroundings intimately but she also chooses to describe the horror of it as well. Dillard’s opening passage catches us by surprise for it states
I used to have 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 half awaken. 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 sharping 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. … We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. (Dillard 1-2)
This passage, acts as a wake-up call. It shows us the amazement and pain that Nature offer us. The juxtaposition of the “blood” and “rose” imagery suggests a connection between our life, represented by the blood, as well as Nature, represented by the rose. In using this horrific image as an opener, Dillard suggests two things. First, she suggests that Nature doesn’t always have to be beautiful. And second, she implies that Nature’s most epiphanic moments, which are sometimes not what we expect them to be, work when we least expect it– catching us off guard.
Catching us off guard is exactly what Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek does. In using language to translate her epiphanic moments that connect humanity to Nature, Dillard not only defines our relationship to Nature but expands our ways of seeing it as well. These redefinitions and reseeings, in turn, cause our perceptions of Nature to grow and expand. Dillard’s book suggests that knowledge and seeing is the key to really knowing something intimately. While her book does not teach us how to save our planet, it does teach us a little bit more about understanding Nature and using this new information to reconnect ourselves back to it.
Johnson, S. H. The Space Between, Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio : The Kent State University Press, 1992.
Ross-Bryant, L. “The Silence of Nature.” Religion and Literature 22.1 (1990) : 79-94.
Smith, L. L. “We Wake, if at All, to Mystery.” Annie Dillard New York : Twayne Publishers, 1991 : 16 -53.