We wake up, if we wake up, to mysteries, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . “It’s like we’ve just been here,” a woman told me recently, “and no one knows why.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrims at Tinker Creek
A few weeks ago I posted this on Facebook: What books have changed your life? I don’t mean what books you consider “the best” or at the top of the “Great Books” canon, but what books came at the right time in your life and changed something important? The response has been interesting, with my Facebook friends counting (and theirs) interesting and eclectic gifts from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky. I have listed four books that fit into my “this book changed my life” category, books that I will write about in the next few weeks. First up is Annie Dillard Pilgrims at Tinker Creek.
At a writer’s workshop a few summers ago one of the writing instructors gave us writer wannabes a terrible question to ask every time we write. “With Middlemarch and Pilgrims at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone want to this?” It’s been over twenty-five years or so since I read it Pilgrims at Tinker Creek for the first time, I once told friends that their opinion was greatly appreciated by the book’s effect on me.
More often than not, my friend replies that she read it years ago and never finished it, or she says “I haven’t.” Another said, “I don’t like reading much, but I can’t forget it.” I understand these styles—the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner Dillard’s is strange, quirky, eclectic, and one-of-a-kind. And it helped me see the world around me differently.
Our life is a reflection on the surface of the mystery, like the lazy, twisted bits of leaf miners on the edge of a leaf. We need to see broadly, to look at the whole country, to really see, and explain what is happening.
Annie Dillard was a keen observer of detail, able to see things that escaped everyone’s attention. He sees complex worlds and is interested in the smallest things – I often think of Dr. Seuss. Horton hears the Who when I read Dillard’s. But I’ve seen naturalists before—what makes Dillard’s different is that it invites the reader into a whole new kind of experience. Given that, as he writes, most of us “spend most of our energy by spending every waking minute saying goodbye to ourselves,” how can we learn to get out of the way and see what is real rather than what we think. know?
There is another kind of knowledge, which is letting go. When I see this scene, I jump transfixed and helpless. The difference between the two ways of knowing is the difference between going without a suitcase. When I go with the camera I go from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I go without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the light of time shines on my own silver belly. When I see this second side, I am more than just a passive observer.
And what Dillard saw, “Awe and unfathomable beauty is a blue ribbon woven into the laces of the garments of the great and the small.” From the slow-motion horror of watching a giant water snake hold a tiny frog and then suck the frog’s guts out through the hole in the gun to the free-flowing beauty of a free-falling mockingbird. from the fifth floor building only avoid and light. As a feather just feet away from falling to the ground—because it can—Dillard knows that we are surrounded by endless details that defy our constant attempts to separate and “know.”
Dillard doesn’t hesitate to ask the big questions that arise from his intense attention to detail. As he describes it in his other books, he always engages in “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” Our attempts to understand the big picture, however, must start with the case rather than what we want. This is necessary to learn how to see unfiltered.
What we know, at least for the beginning, is that we are here – so indisputable. This is our life, our light seasons, and then we die. Now, in the middle of time, we can see. The scales have fallen from our eyes, the scars have been cut, and we can do the thinking of the pieces of color that we see when trying to see. where we do not argue. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.
Experiencing this kind of experience has been “eye-opening” for me (pun intended), uncovering previously unknown paths I’ve always wanted to follow. They led me to ways of thinking about God that scattered me.
We have never seen a god so beloved as a man who throws a gnat at his feet. No one in the world is as cruel as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; Right and wrong are human concepts. Morality: we are moral beings, then, in an amoral world. The universe that nurtured us is a monster that doesn’t care if we live or die – it doesn’t care if it cuts itself.
Pilgrims at Tinker Creek filled page after page with detailed descriptions of violence and cruelty in the natural world, and my students could imagine why Dillard found it necessary to beat his readers on above their heads with the absolute truth: , dead and alive. “Game over!” they complain. Dillard’s point is not to fill the pages but to force us to face the implications of what we see, with what these facts tell us about what which is greater than us. What kind of behavior or process is responsible for this?
How many people pray for their daily food and go hungry? They die their death every day, like a frog. Canada, play with, play, when God knows they love their lives. During the winter famine, the Algonquin Indians ate a broth made from smoke, ice, and buckskin, and pellagra appeared as a butterfly-like rash on their tender bodies—the rose of hunger, in the description of the French doctor; and the hungry died covered with roses. Are these beautiful, free roses, or a powerful show? Or is beauty itself a manufactured illusion, the worst illusion of all?
Dillard is well aware that such challenges as Job’s to God are “out of bounds” in many circles, but he doesn’t get it. “We are people,” he wrote, “we are allowed to associate with the creator and we must speak for the creator. God look out what you have done to this creature, look at the sadness, the cruelty, the long waste! Elsewhere he asks, “What is Hill Sam doing?” The truth is, what we see is not what we expect to see in a natural world created and cared for by a benevolent god. Dismissing traditional practices and ideas, Dillard freely explores the possibilities.
If I go up to the second heaven and take a towel and hold a beautiful cloth and I put my hands with the wrinkle to pull it, the face will be torn to reveal an ugly black, happy eyes?
I have thought about this since my early years as a Baptist child, but this is the first time I have seen it in print. And it has inspired me to boldly pursue whatever I see behind the scenes—no matter where it takes me.
But, as Dillard keeps reminding his readers, horror and beauty are intertwined in our world, so our attempts to separate them will always fail.
No, I’ve been to this a million times, beauty doesn’t lie—how many days did it take me to learn not to look at the back of my hand when I’m looking at the river? . . . The real beauty. I will never deny; The scary thing is, I forgot.
When I remember to get out of my own way, Pilgrims at Tinker Creek it’s a situation for me, a situation of different consciousness. This theme of learning how to really see weaving through a lot of text has inspired me over the years – Annie Dillard was the first to introduce it to me.
The secret of knowledge is the pearl of great price. . . . But while the pearl may be found, it may not be sought after. The book of enlightenment shows this above all: while it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and skilled, a gift and a wonderful thing.