Nurturing A Knowledge of Nature in Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Jane Porter '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, combines meticulous details, literary references, and scientific explanations to illuminate a world of nature she seems to discover simultaneously with the reader. Dillard masterfully describes facets of nature that are not sought out in distant exotic lands but that are rather found in her very backyard. Her writing style parallels that of Lawrence in her ability to transform the ordinary into extraordinary through virtuoso description. For example, Lawrence paints the image of snow gleaming "apricot gold" in describing an Italian winter scene just as Dillard describes the snow on the yard looking, "blue as ink." Throughout the text, we encounter images of Tinker Creek -- an orange tree covered in birds, a dried snake skin, the shadows along a mountain, or the space seen between patches of fog. Dillard goes a step further than Lawrence, however, not only providing the reader with rich observations of nature but also elaborating on her struggle to see in such a way, indicating the recurring message that "nature does reveal as well as conceal." Gradually, Dillard's observations become markers of her understanding that nature is not as easily understood as may seem:

Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree. But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities -- looking over my own shoulder, as it were -- the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown. And time, which had flown down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases. It dams, stills, stagnates. [p.81]

Dillard is not entirely immersed in nature as she goes on to explain:

Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people -- the novelist's world, not the poet's. [p.81]

Dillard's perspective changes in this passage, shifting from that of an observer to that of a critic and analyst. She continues to explain, "Innocence is a better world," describing 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" (p.82). Dillard riddles her text with such contrasting styles, mirroring the effect various factors in life have on our perception of nature.


How does Dillard juxtapose the novelist's world to that of the poet? Can we place her accurately in either of these worlds? Is she more like a poet or novelist and why?

Are we looking over Dillard's shoulder as readers? Does Dillard assume we read this text with the self-consciousness she describes in the above passage or are we meant to lose ourselves in the present as she does?

Dillard's analogies in describing nature often involve man-made objects. For example she compares rolling ice to a window blind or the moon to the softly frayed heel of a sock. The following passage in which Dillard is observing a praying mantis forming an egg case captures this grotesque concept of the purely natural being equated to the unnatural:

It seemed to act so independently that I forgot the panting brown stick at the other end. The bubble creature seemed to have two eyes, a frantic little brain, and two busy soft hands. It looked like a hideous, harried mother slicking up a fat daughter for a beauty pageant, touching her up, slobbering over her, patting and hemming and brushing and stroking. [p.57]

If Dillard is so focused on observing and understanding the natural world, why does she continually bring us back to the man-made in her descriptions and analogies? Does this technique dub civilization with a particular role in our understanding of nature?

Throughout the text, Dillard references artists such as Van Gogh and Picasso. She becomes critical at times, stating for example, "Van Gogh found nerve to call this world ďa study that didn't come off,' but I'm not so sure." [p.69] What role does the artist play in Dillard's life? What technique in her prose indicates her stance on art in contrast to nature?

What effect does disagreeing with Van Gogh have on Dillard's ethos? Why is she able to question the renowned artist and get away with it?

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Last modified 3 December 2006