Annie Dillard's descriptions of nature vacillate between the delicate and sometimes flowery to the visceral and often grotesque in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, giving the reader graphic images of the growth of trees, the cold-blooded consciences of insects, and, of course, the changing of seasons. But Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not about nature; it is about consciousness. Dillard uses her observations of nature to speak about self-consciousness and the usually unnoticed lapses into "unself-consciousness", the difficulty of experiencing the present, and the frustration felt by scientists and laymen alike of trying to understand the nature of the universe. She writes about what she sees, but only in order to write about how she sees it.
Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all. Even a certain amount of interior verbalization is helpful to enforce the memory of whatever it is that is taking place. The gas station beagle puppy, after all, may have experienced those same moments more purely than I did, but he brought fewer instruments to bear on the same material, he had no data for comparison, and he profited only in the grossest of ways, by having an assortment of itches scratched.
Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree. But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities — looking over my own shoulder, as it were — the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown. And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases. It damns, stills, stagnates.
Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people — the novelist's world, not the poet'sÉInnocence is a better world. . . .
What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious stare at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration. One needn't be, shouldn't be, reduced to a puppy. If you wish to tell me that the city offers galleries, I'll pour you a drink and enjoy your company while it lasts; but I'll bear with me to my grave those pure moments at the Tate (was it the Tate?) where I stood planted, open-mouthed, born, before that one particular canvas, that river, up to my neck, gasping, lost, receding into watercolor depth and depth to the vanishing point, buoyant, awed, and had to be literally hauled away. These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.
In the passage above, Dillard explains a pattern of structure seen throughout the book; she speaks about no longer seeing a tree when becoming conscious of herself, after being "lost" in the tree a moment before. This pulling back of focus and intensity of tone is parallel to her descriptions of the horrifying acts of insects followed by a lighter paragraph bringing the reader back to the familiar and more peaceful present. Dillard uses the movement between types of consciousness in her writing to speak about consciousness without actually saying the word.
1. Why does Dillard include the line "(was it the Tate?)"?
2. Dillard speaks of nature and the act of seeing in the same reverent tone as Ruskin does, often utilizing "word-painting" as he does. As spoken about in class, she is clearly a disciple of his and even quotes him at times in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
We glide over [the water] a quarter of a mile into the picture before we know where we are, and yet the water is as calm and crystalline as a mirror; but we are not allowed to tumble into it, and gasp for breath as we go flashing and radiant with every hue of cloud, and sun, and sky, and foliageÉthey are all uncertain and inexplicable. — Ruskin's "Of Water, as Painted by Turner."
Ruskin and Dillard share an attention to detail and passion for observation, but what are some fundamental differences between such writing in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and that in Ruskin's Modern Painters? Specifically, what is the difference in the aims of the two writers? The similarities, not in style or content, but in intention?
3. Dillard includes herself consistently throughout the book, even when making generalized statements of wisdom, as in the passage above. But also above she calls a self-conscious world "a novelist's, not a poet's". Which does she consider herself? She is, in fact, a novelist, and keeping that in mind, what does she mean by this statement?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 27 November 2007