Throughout Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the author uses a number of techniques and devices to create images of particular landscapes that are both vivid and unique. Dillard’s language in descriptions of the landscape suggests space and shape, assigns color and likeness, and at times, implies motion and vitality. One particularly striking example of Dillard’s crafting the landscape occurs when she famously “pat the puppy” (79) and becomes completely aware of her present sensory experiences, describing a mountain before her in such terms as these:
“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. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like a running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment” (79).
Dillard’s use of images, words and figurative and lyrical language in her description of mountain together create a sense of motion and vitality, as if the landscape she depicts is actively alive, shaping and forming itself before her. The vitality of this particular landscape, as observed during her moment of transcendence, perhaps suggests that such life may only be observed but at rare and fleeting moments.
Imperative to the effect of the above passage is Dillard’s use of verbs in the present tense. As each sentence contains multiple verbs, all of which apply to the appearance of the mountain and its various components, Dillard’s description perhaps suggests that in her moment of pure observation, she views the landscape performing before her, or actively constructing itself. The activity of the landscape perhaps implies continuous and rhythmic movement or motion, an idea which culminates in Dillard’s final image of the oscillograph, which typically maps waves and currents. Dillard seems to give the mountain much of its animation through the play of light and shadow on its surface. For Dillard, inconsistencies in the light create movement, color and shape; while the light is subject to change due to time of day, shadow and cloud cover, the appearance of the mountain is likewise affected.
Of shadows on the mountain, Dillard writes “they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster” (79), suggesting present motion as well as future motion, as the speed of the shadows’ elongation grows progressively faster. Furthermore, the shadows may be expected to repeat such motions in successive days, as long as the Earth persists in its rotation. Dillard’s verb choice in mentions of the mountain’s physical components also implies present motion. In one instance, Dillard writes that the mountain’s “bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side” (79). That these protrusions “sprout,” suggests that they participate in an organic process of growth, much as plants sprout from seed and continue to grow. It is perhaps useful to note that this process typically occurs through contact with sunlight, the interaction Dillard uses to create a sense of motion on the mountain.
Dillard’s use of verbs in the present tense to delineate active motion on the mountain is perhaps inseparable from her personification of the various components of the mountain and the light. That Dillard personifies things such as land and light perhaps serves to further animate the landscape and make her comparisons possible. As Dillard compares the forest at the base of the mountain to protoplasm, which is typically matter teeming with life, her personification of the landscape works to further suggest life. Dillard’s verbs suggest present motion, but her use of personification allows that motion to be further associated with life. In personifying the mountain and the light, Dillard writes, “shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks” (79), allowing that the shadows may “lope” as some creature of the land, and that the mountain may have “flanks” in much the same way. Rather than allow the shadows to participate in some non-human or animal action, Dillard specifically observes that the shadows “lope,” perhaps encouraging the thought the actions of the shadows may not be governed by such as the sun. Likewise, rather than the shadows loping on the “sides” of the mountains, they do so on its “flanks.” That the mountain should have metaphorical flanks would perhaps suggest that it possesses other parts of a living body, and is a living body itself.
Throughout the passage describing the mountain, Dillard also employs a number of lyrical devices, which contribute the apparent rhythm and movement of the landscape. A particularly lyrically charged instance in Dillard’s description of the mountain is her account of the color of the light on its surface, in which she writes, “a warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock” (79). In this instance, Dillard employs alliteration, rhyme and consonance, the ultimate effect of which is perhaps a suggestion of rhythm and movement. The alliterative segment “purple pigment pools” creates a melodic effect, and perhaps suggests that the flow of speech evident here is indicative of the flow of events occurring on the mountain. The pigment then, pools “in each ruck and tuck of rock,” which exemplifies Dillard’s use of rhyme and consonance. That “ruck” and “tuck” should rhyme seems to give the description of the light a rhythmic and somewhat repetitive quality, especially as both terms essentially imply a pleat or fold (OED). The seeming softness of the verbs contrasts with the apparent hardness of the “rock.” Together, “ruck,” “tuck” and “rock” embody consonance, which like alliteration, lends rhythm to the line of prose.
Simile abounds in Dillard’s description of the mountain, with the likely object of continuing the conceit that the landscape is a living, moving entity. Dillard’s shadows “elongate like root tips” (79), a comparison which invites ideas of natural growth and being alive. Dillard’s conception of the forest as “living protoplasm” (79) works similarly, in that her perceived motions of the forest as a whole suggest multitudes of life within responsible for such action. Indeed, this image is consistent with Dillard’s writing throughout the rest of the work, as she commonly focuses on life on smaller, even microscopic scales. The oscillograph image introduced by Dillard at the end of the passage is perhaps complicated by the fact that it is neither alive nor produced by natural processes, but is instead an account or map of motion, usually waves or currents. The motion of currents and waves while not necessarily perfectly regular, usually follows a pattern or rhythm of continuous motion. Dillard’s description of the mountain evokes this same idea in that the mountain is teeming with constant motion. For Dillard, the motion of the forest resembles the image produced by an oscillograph, as does Dillard’s language for the reader. Dillard presents motion after motion at work on the mountain, varying and repeating literary techniques in order to create from language the movements she describes.
Dillard works to establish a natural, organic motion on the mountain. In that moment of transcendence when Dillard is capable of entirely open observation, the mountain landscape is alive. Dillard’s language in her description of the landscape not only makes it vivid for the reader, but mimics the sense of rhythmic movement which she assigns to the land as well. Dillard’s use of repetition, sound devices, metaphor, images and active verbs create for the reader a sense of fluid, changing language on a page, which in turn describes an apparently fluid and changing landscape. The final image of the oscillograph, while indicative of an inorganic process, measures the activity witnessed by Dillard, reflecting itself upon the image of the forest. Perhaps an oscillograph of Dillard’s writing in this passage during her transcendent moment would also generate rhythmic waves and currents, progressing and yet doubling back, continues and full of movement and life.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.