Epigrams and Old Toms

Ann Pepi, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Just as Annie Dillard drew arrows to hidden pennies as a child, she directs our gaze, with deftly weaved tales of nature, to previously unseen muskrats, murderous insects, and toast-like butterflies. It remains up to us, after reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, if we choose to forge out in search of the proverbial penny or if we choose to live vicariously through Dillard's experiences and insights. Either way we come away wealthier. If we simply notice the beauty of the individual blossoms on a tree in spring or gaze curiously at a marching train of ants she has succeeding in causing us to see, and not merely to look. This may seem an overly optimistic view considering her lengthy description of horse-hair worms slowly sucking the life from grasshoppers and beetles or and the 'menage a trois' food fest involving a bee, a wasp, and a praying mantis, but not if one focuses on her extraordinary ability as a word painter.

Shadows lope along the mountain's rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleafed forest and rumpled rock in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow. These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding.[78]

Yet, in focusing solely on Dillard's masterful ability at using words to cause mountains to come alive one would miss her greater purpose. She slips in quotes from Emerson, Thoreau, and her friend "the poet" to give greater meaning to the nature she experiences without managing to sounds heavy handed or pompous. The quote containing the thought and idea, which her examples and words convey throughout her book, is from Heraclitus and appears as an epigram prior to the commencement of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "It ever was, and is, and shall be,/ever-living Fire, in measure being/kindled and in measure going out." These three lines represent Dillard's cyclical, continuous view on death, life and the natural world. The cycle of Dillard's book begins and ends with and Old Tom. The first paragraph on page 1 and the second to the last paragraph on page 270 both begin, "I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom..." The difference is that in the first paragraph she is only "half-awaken[ed]" by the old tom; in the second to the last paragraph she is "dazzled, drawn."

My question is why? Is she trying to show the reader how the same event can be looked at in more than one way? Is she perhaps attempting to pounce upon us and dazzle us into see rather than slipping through life half awake? Do the epigram of Herclitus and the repeated us of the old tom convey the same thought or vastly different ones?


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Last modified 18 April 2002