How Does Dillard Know How To "Pet the Puppy"?

Nathan Deuel, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

By page 17 in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where Dillard writes, "A photography professor at the University of Florida just happened to see a bird die in midflight; it jerked, died dropped, and smashed on the ground," I thought the book's thesis was simple and neat. According to Dillard, I thought, people grow up and stop seeing beautiful things. Adult Dillard still does -- and so do her friends -- and that's why they are good writers and photographers and professors and poets and people. As neat and important as the book felt, I knew it was published in 1974, and I figured Earth Day was founded around then, perhaps in 1972. I wondered if she wanted to save the muskrats and creeks she found so compelling, or if they were just interesting. How would Dillard stand up to the bored postmodern gaze? Why, anyway, do Dillard and her friends see beauty and complexity in their back yards when others see the "lawn"?

My friend Roseanne Coggeshall, the poet, says that "sycamore" is the most intrinsically beautiful word in English. This sycamore is old; its lower bark is always dusty from yeas of floodwater lapping up its trunk. Like many sycamores, too, it is quirky, given to flights and excursions. Its trunk lists over the creek at a dizzying angle, and from that trunk extends a long, skinny limb that spurts high over the opposite bank without branching. The creek reflects the speckled surface of this limb, pale even against the highest clouds, and that image pales whiter and thins as it crosses the creek, shatters in the riffles and melds together, quivering and mottled, like some enormous primeval reptile under the water. [86]

Why does Dillard say Roseanne is her "friend"? Should I know Roseanne is "the poet? Why didn't Dillard just steal her idea? Is Dillard's description of the "sycamore" good?

In his Harper's essay, "The Numbing of the American Mind," Thomas de Zengotita writes about what Tom Wolfe described at Brown this Sunday as a "psychological economy." In this new world, people exchange money for experiences, not goods. Cities build stadiums and convention centers as huge monoliths to contain experience. This sort of mentality, Zengotita argues, has polluted our ability to enjoy nature.

Nature doesn't make it anymore. Even if you eschew the resonant clutter of The Tour and The Gear, you will virtualize everything you encounter anyway, all by yourself. You won't see wolves, you'll see "wolves." You'll be murmuring to yourself at some level, "Wow, look, a real wolf, not in a cage, not on TV, I can't believe it."

That's right, you can't. Natural things have become their own icons.

And you will get restless really fast if that "wolf" doesn't do anything. The kids will start squirming in, like, five minutes; you'll probably need to pretend you're not getting bored for a while longer. But if that smudge of canine out there in the distance continues to just loll around in the tall grass, and you don't have a really powerful tripod-supported telelens gizmo to play with, you will get bored. You will begin to appreciate how much technology and editing goes into making those nature shows. The truth is that if some no-account chipmunk just happens to come around your campsite every morning for crumbs from your picnic table, it will have meant more to you than any "wolf."

Precious accidents.

It seems that Dillard, even in 1974, knew her way of seeing the world was special. Being a writer, having the ability to edit and organize experiences, makes beautiful what could be boring chaos. Is this editing of experience just a neat privilege? Is it just an effective way of avoiding that the country of Tibet, Roseanne Coggeshall, muskrats, and most words have effectively become coded brand names? Tom Wolfe smiles, dresses funny, and observes with a droll lilt -- but what's at stake thirty years after New Journalism? Dillard wrote once about the artist Giacometti, about his bewilderment and persistence. Do you need a cabin in rural Virginia or a rugged loft in New York to have the vision to see beauty, to pet the proverbial puppy? When Dillard says, "Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you," what sort of problems do we find? Is it simply a matter of time? Do we use pens and notebooks and fancy computers like the photographic gizmos Zengotita describes? When Dillard described the sycamore, do we detect bewilderment and persistence?


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Last modified 24 November 2003