Instead of a young plant whose green sprouts might remind one of an immediate urge to grow, Annie Dillard uses sycamore trees to describe her struggle to grasp the present moment. However, All of her examples are deeply rooted in history, just like the trees. She disengages from the representation of the present as a series of snapshots by flooding her reader with connections to the past. Memory and the concept of the present begin in the distant past with Xerxes and his golden sycamore. Dillard's internal dialogue becomes more sporadic as she slides back and forth between past and present. Time and place blur, Dillard's mind circles her debate, disjointed even from her confusion.
Scenes drift across the screen from nowhere, I can never discover the connection between any one scene and what I am more consciously thinking, nor can I ever conjure the scene back in full vividness. It is like a ghost, in full-dress regalia, that wafts across the stage set unnoticed by the principle characters. It appears complete, in full color, wordless, thought already receding: the tennis courts on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, an equestrian statue in a Washington park, a basement dress shop in New York City— scenes that I thought meant nothing to me. These aren't still shots; the camera is always moving. And the scene is always just slipping out of sight, as if in spite of myself I were always just descending a hill, rounding a corner, stepping into the street with a companion who urges me on, while I look back over my shoulder at the sight which recedes, vanishes. The present of my consciousness is itself a mystery which is also always just rounding a bend like a floating branch borne by a flood. Where am I? But I'm not. ŅI will overturn, overturn, overturn it: and it shall be no more." . . . . until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him" (Ezekiel 21:27). [94-95]
Dillard ends her passage with a biblical quotation concerning the crown and throne of the prince of Israel. Exalt the low and belittle the high is the main message of the quoted verse. Dillard's dispute, however, is with her memory, which for most of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek resembles a crystal clear photograph accompanied by detailed commentary. The carefully compiled slide show is disrupted and questioned in this passage. Dillard admits to a lack of focus, an inability to view the present, and an almost obsessive attention to her past.
1. Does the honesty of this passage change the way the reader thinks about Dillard's stories? Are they more or less valid?
2. In a discussion about the present, why does Dillard include so little of it?
3. What is Dillard trying to overturn, if anything?
4. Surrounded by nature, why does Dillard choose to include examples of tennis courts, dress shops, and a statue? Does her comment on the missing importance of these images make the inclusion of others seem too calculated?
5. Why are the two short sentences "Where am I? But I'm not" included?
6. Does the narrator seem to fall apart or come to terms with her surrounding in this paragraph? Is the reader expected to relate directly to her experience with the present?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 27 November 2007