Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek attempts to gauge the scope of the world, to measure the vast geography of nature. Hers is an ode to the outside in all of its diverse possibilities — the creepy crawlers, the poisonous snakes, the deathly parasites — and an exhibit of the emotions it stirs — awe, fear, and indignity. With messily energetic prose that asserts the "breathing fact of its presence" (196) with each question mark and each exclamation, Dillard's compilation is a journey on a massive scale, but each word, each sentence and each extended meditation on each tiny insect defends the importance of minutiae within the vast, orbiting globe. To recognize the whole, Dillard teaches us, one must understand detail; to truly perceive scope, one must be aware of fractions. It is by turning herself into a statue to watch the muskrats, bending down in the dirt to see the worms, and watching eggs hatch with the greatest respect and patience, that she begins to not only appreciate but to fully understand nature's cycles. It is a complex world indeed when each square centimeter of earth teams with life and detail; only by focusing on the small can we begin to arrive at some idea of the larger forces at work.
What else is going on right this minute while ground water creeps under my feet? The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening. If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow. The sun's surface is now exploding; other stars implode and vanish, heavy and black, out of sight. Meteorites are arcing to earth invisibly all day long. On the planet the winds are blowing: the polar easterlies, the westerlies, the northeast and southeast trades. Somewhere, someone under full sail is becalmed, in the horse latitudes, in the doldrums; in the northland, a trapper is maddened, crazed, by the eerie scent of the chinook, the sweater, a wind that can melt two feet of snow in a day. The pampero blows, and the tramontane, and the Boro, sirocco, levanter, mistral. Lick a finger: feel the now. (98)
Dillard writes here with impatience and wonder, hypnotizing the reader with lists depicting incomprehensible distance, a series of spontaneous events that characterize the world. While the earth continues by a series of seemingly arbitrary coincidences — each lucky fluke that prevents the meteorites from hitting, keeps the winds continually blowing, and the galaxy always widening, sailors get stuck, trappers get mad. It is a dizzying array, moving from the broad galaxy to the detailed individual. Eventually, you have to be brought back to immediacy with a lick of the finger.
1. The sentences in the passage above begin as short, concise, and detached statements. "The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening," is followed immediately by "If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow." What is the relationship between the two statements? How does their detached nature reflect Dillard's impatient and wonder-stricken tone?
2. What is the effect of the series of specific wind and patterns Dillard lists? Is it necessary for the reader to know the specifics of each wind?
3. Dillard uses dramatic, somewhat unconventional verbs to describe natural forces — exploding, careening, arcing. What is the effect of their placement on tone and impact?
4. The two people Dillard describes in the paragraph are a sailor and a trapper. What is the significance of these two occupations in relation to the subject of the book?
5. How does Dillard's style of wisdom and the way she conveys her knowledge differ from the styles of Ruskin and Carlyle?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 27 November 2007