Annie Dillard writes with frantic indecision. She does not pretend to have the answer like a Carlyle or a Ruskin. Rather, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she presents a quite different sort of sage writing. Dillard passes her wisdom to the reader by thinking through, on the page, the issues that interest her. She gives us complex and challenging questions, disturbing facts, and disturbing self-revelations instead of hard maxims. By constantly repeating and reinterpreting certain images and memories, Dillard brings the reader with her in her attempt to deconstruct notions of perception, consciousness, time, and mortality.
I am sitting under a sycamore tree: I am soft-shell and peeled to the least puff of wind or smack of grit. The present of our life looks different under trees. Trees have dominion. I never killed that backyard sycamore; even its frailest inner bark was a shield . . . .
I am sitting under a bankside sycamore; my mind is a slope. Arthur Koestler wrote, "In his review of the literature on the psychological present, Woodrow found that its maximum span is estimated to lie between 2.3 and 12 seconds." How did anyone measure that slide?...This isn't Tinker Creek. Where do I live, anyway? I lose myself, I float . . . . I am in Persia, trying to order a watermelon in German. It's insane. The engineer has abandoned the control room, and an idiot is splicing the reels. What could I contribute to the "literature on the psychological present"?
All right then. Pull yourself together. Is this where I'm spending my life, in the "reptile brain," this lamp at the top of the spine like a lighthouse flipping mad beams indiscriminately into the darkness, into the furred thoraxes of moths, onto the backs of leaping fishes and the wrecks of schooners? Come up a level; surface.
I am sitting under a sycamore by Tinker Creek. I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures, just as real, for whom also this moment, this tree, is "it." . . . .In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found "an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 spring tails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various numbers of 12 other forms . . . [pp. 93-5]
Dillard uses anaphora to comment on the complexity of psychological processes and the difficulty of putting one's thoughts on paper. By creating, on paper, a continuous space and presence under the tree, she, in fact, rethinks again and again, directly for the reader, her role as a conscious being, a sage, and a writer.
1. How does Dillard's use of anaphora differ from that of Johnson? What is the effect of the subtle changes within the repeated phrase "I am sitting under a sycamore"?
2. What does Dillard achieve by quoting Woodrow's statistics on the psychological present as mediated through the words of Arthur Koestler?
3. Dillard writes her own thought processes as a thinker and writer into her work: "Pull yourself together . . . .Come up a level; surface" (p.95). What do these moments do in terms of her relationship to the reader? How does this creation of persona compare with that of other writers such as Didion or Ruskin?
4. Dillard's quoting dry facts actually complements that sense of the overwhelming and the grotesque that she often tries to create. How does Dillard effectively balance and intertwine her incorporation of what could be bland scientific research with her fanciful musings and her disturbing form of minute observation?
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper, 1988.
Last modified 26 April 2005