Annie Dillard takes her reader on an enchanting walk through nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She explores the area around Tinker Creek with the eyes of a sage, describing the scenes she observes in ways that jump off the page for the reader, creating a beautiful painting with her words. But Dillard also consistently injects an extensive array of knowledge about each of her experiences in the woods, no matter how simple or inconsequential the experience seems. In the way that Wolfe becomes an expert on his human subjects almost as though he has become one of the people he is writing about, Dillard's authority on he subjects combined with her ability to describe such a vivid scene and enhances her story and engages the reader.
Sycamores are among the last trees to go into leaf; in the fall, they are the first to shed. They make sweet food in green broad leaves for a while — leaves wide as plates — and then go wild and wave their long white arms. In ancient Rome men honored the sycamore — in the form of its cousin, the Oriental plane — by watering its roots with wine. Xerxes, I read, "halted his unwieldly army for days that he might contemplate his satisfaction" the beauty of a single sycamore.
You are Xerxes in Persia. Your army spreads on a vast and arid peneplain...you call to all your sad captains, and give the order to halt. You have seen the tree with lights in it, haven't you? You must have. Xerxes buffeted on a plain, ambition drained in a puff. That fusillade halts an army in its tracks. Your men are bewildered; they lean on their spears, sucking the rinds of gourds. There is nothing to catch the eye in this flatness, nothing but a hollow, hammering sky, a waste of sedge in the lee of windblown rocks, a meager ribbon of scrub willow tracing a slumbering watercourse...and that sycamore. You saw it; you still stand rapt and mute, exalted, remembering or not remembering over a period of days to shade you head with your robe. (89)
Who isn't impressed at the power of the sycamore after writing like that? This passage truly expresses the appreciation Dillard has for nature, a passion for nature that many take for granted. The story of Xerxes is particularly powerful, whether accurate or not, because it shows that Dillard might not be alone in her appreciation for nature and the effect it can have on an individual.
1. Why does Dillard frame the story of Xerxes in the second person?
2. How does Dillard's writing compare to Wolfe's? Would Wolfe have written about this tree in the same way?
3. Would you agree with the characterization of Dillard as a sage?
4. When Dillard begins telling her story of Xerxes, she mentions that "she read" the story somewhere. Does this give her more credibility when she tells the story?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 27 November 2007