Annie Dillard lives in a self-exiled natural world, with seemingly little human interaction. Living by Tinker Creek, Dillard describes her home as "a good place to live; there's a lot to think about," (4). Dillard does precisely that; in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she ponders humans' relation to nature, including ideas of death, perception and consciousness. Dillard leads readers through fragmented stories of nature-"color-patches"-showcasing life and death and their intertwinement. Dillard self-consciously writes herself into the book as the readers' connection to the natural world of Tinker Creek, our only human connection to this natural world.
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." Take just the top inch of soil, the world squirming right under my palms. 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 . . . Had an estimate also been made of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions of fungi, protozoa and algae — in a mere teaspoonful of soil." The chrysalids of butterflies linger here too, folded, rigid, and dreamless. I might as well include these creatures in this moment, as best I can. My ignoring them won't strip them of their reality, and admitting them, one by one, into my consciousness might heighten mine, might add their dim awareness to my human consciousness, such as it is, and set up a buzz, a vibration like the beating ripples of a submerged muskrat makes on the water, from this particular moment, this tree. Hasidism has a tradition that one of man's purposes is to assist God in the work of redemption by "hallowing" the things of creation. By a tremendous heave of his spirit, the devout man frees the divine sparks trapped in the mute things of time; he uplifts the forms and moments of creation, bearing them aloft into that rare air and hallowing fire in which all clays must shatter and burst. Keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.
Dillard exposes life teeming just underneath the human consciousness, and she grapples with the age-old question: if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound if no one can hear it? Humans do not define perception; a reality exists in nature which humans cannot even come close to comprehending. The more you look, Dillard says, the less you see. To Dillard, the creek is an "active mystery," and nature's mystery includes: "the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection," (5). Dillard attempts to find these answers by immersing herself in nature. She, in the Hasidic tradition, takes these forms and moments of creation in nature and lifts them up into the hallowed fire by writing, shattering human constructions of nature. Look closer, she writes, and you may be astonished by the things living just below the surface.
1. Why does Dillard list the number of creatures living in the soil? What does our ignorance (in Dillard's mind) of these living things say about humans' relationship to nature?
2. Dillard refers to Ruskin's ideas of nature in parts of her book. How are her ideas of nature's representations similar to Ruskin? Ruskin's writes in "On the Truth of Color": "I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration. ... There is no climate, no place, and scarcely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit colour which no mortal effort can imitate or approach. For all our artificial pigments are, even when seen under the same circumstances, dead and lightless beside her living colour..." (154).
3. Dillard repeats the subject of the submerged muskrat throughout the book. What does the submerged muskrat symbolize? Why is Dillard constantly stalking the creature? What does she hope to obtain?
4. What is Dillard's take on reality? Can consciousness exist in different realms (ie. Can a falling tree make a noise even if no one is around to hear it?)
5. Dillard carefully places herself right at the beginning of the paragraph. Why does she then follow up the first sentence with the second, qualifying her presence?
6. What does Dillard's reference to Hasidism say about her own religious viewpoints? Dillard also quotes a scientist's study of living creatures in topsoil; why does she use a direct quote? Why doesn't she specify who the scientist or the name of the study?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 29 November 2007