Annie Dillard transforms a walk through her back yard into a spiritual journey, epic in its geographic and historic scope, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. From her own thoughtful observations, and those of scientists who walked before her, to myths of ancient cultures, the structure of her prose mimics the meandering yet deliberate steps of a hiker. At times her thoughts stretch for millenia, to the Persian King Xerxes of the 5th century BC, while at other moments, she zooms in, to the microscopic minutiae of the scientific world, painting a single electron in orbit. Yet Dillard's voice resonates most when she the present moment paralyzes her, and a worshipful, childlike regard for her surroundings fills her sentences. Dillard describes one moment of pure sensory stimulation at a gas station off the highway.
This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I've lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him. he draws his legs down to stretch the skin taut so he feels every fingertip's stroke along his furred and arching side, his flank, his flung-back throat.
I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. it is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator-- our very self-consciousness-- is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. I get in the car and drive home.
Here Dillard shows the unfortunate paradox of the present moment -- as soon as the mind registers that it is in, fact, in the present, the moment has passed and is officially in the past. She uses this conundrum to illustrate the irony of our elf-consciousness as humans, beautifully delineating her train of thought. From the natural world's sensory pleasures she questions her experience, and from her experience she ponders her own conscious mind; the mere existence of nature has driven her to philosophical debate.
1. For Dillard, is the present an abstract idea or a sensory experience?
2. Why does Dillard repeat the descriptions of her mundane movements-- petting a dog, sipping her coffee, looking at the mountains?
3. Does the mention of a past lover remove Dillard from the present? Does her self-consciousness make it impossible for her to experience the present?
4. Is this episode characteristic of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek's search for time and space for humans within nature? Does it serve a narrative function?
5. Both Dillard and the subjects of Wolfe's The Right Stuff define their own spirituality in unique, personalized worship. How does the astronauts' reverence for flying aces and the mysticism of the "right stuff" resemble Dillard's love of the natural world?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 4 December 2007