Annie Dillard opens Pilgrim at Tinker Creek mysteriously, hinting at an unnamed presence. She toys with the longstanding epic images of battlefields and oracles, injecting an air of holiness and awe into the otherwise ordinary. In language more poetic than prosaic, she sings the beautiful into the mundane. She deifies common and trivial findings. She extracts the most high language from all the possible permutations of words to elevate and exalt the normal. Under her pen, her literary devices and her metaphors, a backyard stream becomes a shrine. Writing a prayer, Dillard becomes an instrument through which a ubiquitous spirit reveals itself. Yet in other cases, she latches on to an image of holiness and makes it ugly, horrifying, disturbing, as if to suggest that the manifestation of all that is holy need not always be pretty, that the gorgeous and the gruesome together comprise all that is holy, and without one the other would be meaningless. The written words are a spiritual pilgrimage to the holy shrine where language tinkers with itself, makes a music unto itself, chips and shapes itself into the stuff of Dillard’s essays.
Religious overtones score the text, emerging as references to Islam, Hasidism, and to a lesser extent, Christianity; there are also subtle intimations of mysticism. Dillard plucks the title of the first essay, “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” from the Quran, quoting Allah directly. Describing the darkness capping the ocean as “a swaddling band for the sea” (7), a repeated phrase, her diction implies the Christ child. She makes a power evident without ever saying so aloud, explicitly, by naming it. By means of archaic phrasing, she conveys the sense that what she writes carries the weight of authority and the penetration of faith. Noting the irony of our inability to stare directly into the face of our only source of light, our “one source for all power” (23), Dillard points out in “Seeing” that “we all walk about carefully averting our faces,. . .lest our eyes be blasted forever” (23). She alludes here to the monotheistic concept of the taboo gaze, the forbidden direct stare into the face of God. In the preceding paragraph, she “discover[s] the mystery” (22) of the clouds. Able to perceive them only in the reflective water below, blind to the originals that cast the duplicates, she wonders if “maybe the ark of the covenant was just passing by” (22). The trunk in which Moses stored the Ten Commandments also provided the throne of God within the Tabernacle; he presides from atop the ark between two cherubim, “in unapproachable light” (I Timothy 6:16, Psalm 104:2). As they avoid pronouncing the name of God, believers must also shy away from this brightness. Dillard evokes these mystical taboos to express the irony of human love. Elsewhere she tells the story of a moth consumed by a flame, calling to mind the Sufi symbol for mortal love and the mystical path spiked with danger. The religious symbols also provoke ideas of spirituality that elevate the significance of Dillard’s worldly visions. The references are vital, because her experiences in nature do not connote spiritual presence as they once did.
As GaryMcIlroy points out in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Burden of Science,” American nature writing used to involve pure wilderness on the frontier, the edge of the known world. But instead of Leo Marx’s “machine in the garden” (71), an industrial interruption of the idyllic, Dillard’s writing reveals a shift in the Thoreauvian tradition, where “a sudden dislocation. . .is more likely to be the unexpected onslaught of the natural world into the civilized one-the monster in the Mason jar” (71). At an earlier point in the history of this style of writing, religious presence was an inherent and indisputable element in the natural world. At the time of Dillard’s writing, however, this aspect is no longer assumed; it must be stated outright, boldly returned to the arena, reintegrated, invited back into a world where roaring motorcycle “tread marks [that] stitched the clay” (48) have exiled heavenly thoughts.
She layers different styles of writing over one another, painting an arresting array of essays. In one phrase in “Winter,” she begins prosaically, claiming to “have seen those faces, when the day is cloudy, and [to] have seen at sunset on a clear day houses, ordinary houses” (39). Then, mid-sentence, she waxes rhythmic, poetic, describing those houses “whose bricks were coals and windows flame” (39). In “Fixed,” articulating her fascination with bugs, she blurts out that “insects . . .gotta do one horrible thing after another” (63). Later, she bluntly berates, “You ain’t so handsome yourself” (65). But then she juxtaposes the lilting “arabesque and grand jetÃ© [as] a frantic variation on our one free fall” (68). She, like “the giant water bug [who] sucks out the victim’s body” (6) in “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” sucks out the juice of language. She “devour[s her] prey alive” (6), extracts from all the possible permutations of phrasing the most stunning, the most contrastive, the most arresting language in order to catch at the throat, to catch the eye, to flash a mirror in the face of the reader.
Dillard reads into her world duality, and reflects these pairs in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Much like the interplay between prose and poetry, a visual give and take between detail and immensity floods these essays. Like the lens of a camera, Dillard’s writing zooms in and out, capturing the minute and the massive, the infinitesimal and the infinite. Sitting by a sycamore down at the creek in “The Present,” Dillard enumerates the life below the surface of the soil, “the world squirming right under [her] palms” (94). She details the “microscopic population” (94), the moles’ “intricate tunnels in networks” (95), the “mantle of fungus [that] wraps the soil in weft, shooting out blind thread after frail thread of palest dissolved white” (96). Then the author lurches back, draws out the frame, focuses on the universe, “the galaxy [that] is careening in a slow, muffled widening,” the “sun’s surface [that] is now exploding,” the “meteorites [that] are arcing to earth invisibly all day long” (97). She pushes in toward the tiniest imaginable life, toward “one wild, distant electron” (70), and then pulls out to the grandest, to “deep space with its red giants and white dwarfs” (70), in an attempt to locate herself within it, to effect a self-consciousness that is neither too cocky nor too meek. She honors both worlds linguistically, admitting that insects “make up the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so [she] look[s] to them for a glimmer of companionship” (64), and confers life-like attributes to cold inhuman outer space, naming the “five mute moons of Uranus” (70), finding the rare instance in which one may feel “warmth from the moon” (71).
Dillard moves fluidly between the ideas of shelter and exposure, hard shell and soft shell in “The Fixed.” She discovers the irony of our soft-skinnedness, how we “are living dangerously” (91) with all our hardnesses embedded underneath so much vulnerable flesh. We are an anomaly among the exoskeletonous insects and the hard-barked trees, layered thick, well-defended. Cover must be sought. In the same ironic breath, she wonders at mystical experiences taking believers to mountaintops. It would be safer, she posits, to tuck oneself into “a curved, hollow place, [to be] vulnerable to only a relatively narrow column of God as air” (89). Dillard tells of “other interesting things [that] are going on wherever there is shelter” (47). There are slugs in sacs, bees slumbering in hives, and ladybugs in basketball sized clusters. She integrates the idea of “an archer in cover” (89), the hidden hunter, using “invisibility. . .the all time great ‘cover'” (89). In “Winter,” when all the creatures huddle into hibernation “at dusk, [they] seek shelter, chill, fold, and forget” (46). But in “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” stirred by the tomcat through the window pouncing with bloody paws, she throws off the covers and declares that “we wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, to rumors of death, beauty, violence” (2). To fall asleep is to forget, to be in shadow, to not be present. To awake, if possible, is to come into the light, to be uncovered, bare, stripped, ready. The two elements begin to merge in “The Present,” when “the past inserts a finger into a slit in the skin of the present, and pulls” (88). This sentence harks back to “Seeing’s” daring foray “up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall” (31). The seams that separate heaven and earth become unhemmed. The patterns in the minutiae mirror the patterns of the universe; whether it’s stars or starfish, she finds the same elements in each.
Although “darkness appalls and light dazzles” (23), although the two seem to have their own distinct worlds, in “Seeing,” Dillard exposes the truth of their blending. From the prostrate sycamore log, she inspects the creek bed from small to big, from the bottom up. She moves from snail tracks in the silt floor to crayfish, from minnows to carp, and up to the surface with “skaters, bubbles, and leaves sliding down” (23). She sees her “own face, reflected” (23), and then “with a shuddering wrench of the will, [she] see[s] clouds, cirrus clouds” (23). After falling in, she realizes “this looking business is risky” (23). Again, her work reverberates with traditional Sufi allegories. The mystical Islamic tradition makes mortal and attainable the complex relationship to God by lowering the exalted love to a human level, similar to God’s human embodiment in Jesus for Christians. The lover and the beloved represent man and God, and the Sufi path trains a Muslim to polish his soul so that God might see Himself in it, and by reflection, he might see himself in God, just like Dillard sees herself in the stream. Both Dillard and the mystics are trying to extend one realm into the other, and both recognize the inherent danger in such an endeavor.
Water and sky, large and small, reality and reflection blur and so all of Dillard’s work becomes a mystical metaphor. When she smudges these boundaries, she forces the recognition that these were not separate categories at all. She performs the kind of work that she attributes, in “The Present,” to Hasids, who follow “a tradition [which holds] that one of man’s purposes is to assist God in the work of redemption by ‘hallowing’ the things of creation” (94). She converts light into shadow, sanctifying both, rubbing out the boundary between the human and the holy. She incorporates many seeming opposites under the broad umbrella of consecration. The old lines between human and animal, man and nature, industrial and nature-born all blur at Tinker Creek. This is the work of a mystic, the labor that requires you to “hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff” (33).
Dillard is alert to the ordinary happenings of the world, prepared to slip them into a slinky gown of glittering words at a moment’s notice. She explains that “snow and ice can pass directly into the air as a gas without having first melted to water” (52): sublimation. She cites Pliny’s concept of parthenogenic mares, of “a single cell [that] quivers. . .swells and splits” (52) all by itself, the power of a deity to spontaneously reproduce embedded in the womb of a white mare named Itch. If humans can reach up and pierce the membrane of heaven to enter God’s realm, so God can extend downwards, into the earthly plane, to commingle with the stuff of creation. Dillard shows this happening throughout the essays of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by using the passive voice. The experiences she depicts resound with little metaphors, little insinuations of a mysterious presence.
Dillard’s essays are studded with participles that mysteriously lack agents. The “cloud ceiling” (43) in “Winter” “depart[s] as if drawn on a leash” (43). What master draws this dog? The starlings of “Winter” fly “like a loosened skein” (40). They make “a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs” (40). Who unravels the yarn? What housewife beats the air, pounds the rugs? After a vision, a revelation, Dillard finds she “had been [her] whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment [she] was lifted and struck” (34). What “generous hand” (15) lifts and strikes? Dillard is the call to prayer, and the reader is the worshipper of beauty, of mystery, of poetry. Placing herself as the bell, the instrument, the “arrow shaft, carved along [her] length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky” (12), she waxes self-reflexive, shifting the deity from spirit to author, and the worshipper from author to reader, offering “this book [as] the straying trail of blood” (12). She expresses clearly the mystery, the unknown, in an active voice with a necessarily vague agent: “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. . .We’re played on like a pipe” (13, emphasis mine). The language of the metaphors clearly communicates the dark and dangerous nature of the spiritual.
Drawing on the literature that accompanies her solitary days, Dillard relates Arctic stories that horrify, that redeem. She tells of a wolf caught by a knife stuck in the snow and covered in blubber by an Eskimo; the beast “sliced his tongue to ribbons, and bled to death” (42). She tells the “spare, cruel story” (41) of a man who fed his family by axing the bodies of frozen gulls off the layer of a lake’s ice, leaving “the ice. . . studded with paired, red stumps” (42). She discusses starlings, a Shakespearean bird, but turns their poetic loveliness awful by dredging up their “stink,. . .droppings, and [their] lice” (42). By taking hold of the terrible and exposing it to the same language and thought that she wields to the lovely, she rouses the realization that the ugly and the horrible must also be holy. Unlike the fake firewood advertised as “‘The romance without the heartache'” (41), Dillard’s writing stimulates precisely because it does not shy away from the sweat and labor of chopping wood. Her vision of the sacred embraces both the sweet and the sickening, the romance and the heartache, and would be otherwise unbalanced. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek itself reflects this balance, in form and in content.
McIlroy sees the tension in Dillard as an extension of the same in Thoreau, namely one of science versus theology. He claims that “Dillard’s attraction to science. . .ultimately provides the biggest obstacle to her spiritual pilgrimage, to her transcendental aspirations in the woods” (75). As evidence, he cites her excursions into the entomological domain and her “disturbing. . .observations of [it]” (75), detailing her witness of the giant water bug that drains the small frog. While Dillard certainly delves into the grotesque aspects of the woods by the creek, and illuminates the shadowy dealings among insects, fungi, and teeming bacteria, she does not set these images against the other, more beautiful worlds she finds. It is not a contest between two diametrically opposed camps, where religion must battle with science as McIlroy suggests. Rather, the giant water bug of “Heaven and Earth in Jest,” the fetid starlings and dismembered gulls of “Winter,” Shadow Creek, a creepy alter ego of Tinker Creek in “The Fixed,” all have a place within the author’s vision of sanctity. The world Dillard has built out of Tinker Creek is one in which heaven and hell reside simultaneously, not without contradiction and counterforce, but inclusively; the harrowing strides swiftly beside the serene, and Dillard hallows both. John Kinch, also, in a review of Scott Slovic’s article entitled “Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing,” says that “Slovic finds the essential dialectic in nature writing to be the self confronting ‘the separate realm of nature’: ‘by becoming aware of its otherness, the writer implicitly becomes more deeply aware of his or her own dimensions’ (4)” (194). On the contrary, Dillard becomes more aware of her own dimensions in as much as they parallel the “other” worlds, that of insects, trees, the living creek. She seeks not to contrast but to harmonize her own existence with theirs, linking and stitching them together, finding allies in the dirt.
In the prototypical struggle between science and religion, knowing pits itself against faith. Dillard complicates the Biblical concept of knowing, intertwining it with innocence. The Bible fiercely juxtaposes the two, allowing no confusion between them: knowing is the opposite of innocence for Adam, Eve, and the snake. Dillard loops back on one another the two ideas. Like the ringed snake she encounters in “Untying the Knot,” she “turn[s] right-side out” (73) the ideas that the Bible segregates. The snake “was a loop without beginning or end” (73). Like the knotted snakeskin, Dillard aligns knowing with innocence, and hence science with spirituality; “both are continuous loops” (74). In “The Present,” she counters the idea of innocence as childlike, asserting that “one needn’t be, shouldn’t be, reduced to a puppy” (82). She defines innocence as “the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration” (82), combining the lexicon of religion and mystical journey to elucidate how awareness and knowledge can integrate with openness to fulfill the state of innocence. McIlroy understands her pages of scientific and mystical experience in a two-dimensional way, leaving unturned the third dimension where a seeming dichotomy merges and seams together opposites in a contiguous loop designed to illustrate a coherent and encompassing exploration of the outer world of the creek and the inner world of the mind.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Quality Paperback, 1974.
McIlroy, Gary. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Burden of Science.” American Literature 59 (1987): 71-84.