Annie Dillard's life in Virginia's Roanoke Valley, chronicled in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is at times self-indulgent and frivolous. One stops to wonder what gives this woman the right to live on eternal vacation, reporting on things that generally do not shed light on human existence. The right, the reader soon finds out, is derived from her ability to blend the natural world and the world of literature in such a way that the two create a beautiful, seamless whole. While it is a love song to a place and everything, from the biggest to the most minute, in the ecosystem, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a reconciliation of human ideas and nature at its purest, much like Thoreau's Walden.
In the passage below, Dillard discusses seeing and perception, both literally and figuratively. She lives in a natural world where things are seen by those who have the patience to truly study them, or else they are ignored. While a modern impulse to only notice what will directly impact her, Dillard chooses to use sight to the fullest and truly see what is around her.
Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it. It is, as Ruskin says, "not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen." My eyes alone can't solve analogy tests using figures, the ones which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square in a big square, then a big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words, describe what I'm seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I'd be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It's not that I'm observant; it's just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I'll never know what's happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.
Despite a tendency to narrate though her own flaws, much like Joan Didion, Dillard pays too much heed everything around her and the wonder of the natural world to sound like Didion. John Ruskin, whom Dillard clearly admires, and his work bear a closer resemblance. Dillard also uses a Wolfian strategy of elaborating upon details when she unnecessarily explains the shape analogy.
1. Why is it necessary to discuss seeing in a book about nature?
2. Dillard writes, "It's not that I'm observant; it's just that I talk too much." Clearly, she is observant. What effect does playing down her strengths have?
3. What kind of character is Dillard within her narrative? How do we learn about her and can we trust her self-description?
4. Do we need to know Dillard's thought process in order to understand the world around her?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 29 November 2007