Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard:

“Doors of Perception”

Throughout time, humanity has created mythologies and religions to divide chaos, to order the universe. Webster’s Dictionary defines chaos as “the disorder of timeless matter and infinite space, supposed to have existed before the ordered universe.” This “disorder” is unintelligible to us; the epitome of which is our inability to grasp death: How can we understand death? Often the natural universe is the point of departure for our questioning and the possessor of the potential answers. There are, after all only three directions: God, the universe, and the self. How did the world begin? Why must I die? Who am I? Why is there suffering in the world? There is little agreement on the answers people have found; different cultures lens the environment and their experience there differently. At times there is shining solidarity across the world in the form of archetypes, symbols, rituals, and other fundamental ideas that have been shared by people of different times and lands. This paper will be a tentative look at the questioning of Annie Dillard, her progressions, experiences, and how she, through her understanding of her environment, has come to a similar philosophy shared by ancients and mystics throughout history.

The many vibrant images of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek serve as symbols marking the path described above, namely the quest of one to acquire their own spiritual base and ideology. Dillard uses nature itself as an emblem of mystery, the veil of chaos. The story itself is framed within a description of “an old fighting tom” cat who bloodies the author’s nightgown with red paw prints (1). But it wasn’t just blood, “I looked as though I had been painted with roses” (1). This was the mystery. What was this blood? “Was it the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain?” (2). There is no way to know, she simply woke up with it—and that is life: “Seem like we’re just set down here, . . . and don’t nobody know why” (2). This mystery of life is a major theme in the book and Dillard’s philosophy as a whole. This is the foundation, the truth of our existence: The universe is unknowable. She says that even science has been proved subjective, that now physicists are “wild-eyed, raving mystics” (202). The Principle of Indeterminacy says that “you can not know both a particles velocity and position,” implying that particles are not bound to a law that determines there movement; “they seem to be as free as dragonflies,” Dillard says (202).

What do we do with a world that is clearly beyond our reason to understand? Like a good Zen Buddhist, Dillard says we participate in it; we walk around it and experience it as beauty and wonder, for having innate value in and of itself. And she does, she walks around the land, observing new miracles daily, whether muskrat or chrysalises, sunsets or the ashen branches of sycamores. I’ve heard her criticized as being an observer of the world, but I believe that observing, seeing the world with our eyes is itself a form of experience. Sight is one of the great inlets of perceptions and understanding. The world is literally shaped by our capacity to see it. She talks about “the tree with the lights in it,” another theme of the book, as the first thing a girl saw on regaining her eyesight (28). For Dillard, this cedar, a tree she herself has seen, is symbolic of beauty, and, what is more, as a “great door. . . open[ing] on eternity” (80). Eternity is primary in Dillard’s ideology as well; it lies beneath much of her symbolism as the foundation for which our lives are built around; eternity is the infrastructure of the universe, where nature or the environment is the superstructure.

The blood of the tom cat serves as a cipher to this underlying nature. She questions whether it was “the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth,” thus identifying the dualistic nature of nature (1). The difference, as it was for Whitman, between life and death is thin and veiled, part of the mystery of life. Everywhere she looks she sees something being born out of death—the two always hand in hand: Nature as Dillard sees it is very much a “now you see it, now you don’t affair” (16). There is no certainty, no determinacy, but it is a cycle that dips perpetually into the eternal, the unity beneath.

The universe is so large, so unknowable that anything at all can be shown as relative, or subjective. As the rosy paw prints serve as a doorway and emblem of the “mysterium tremendum,” and themselves a thing so small. Size is therefore deconstructed. Dillard sees the small as being just as essential as the immense. She creates a sort of parable about a penny, one of the most meaningful and memorable passages in the novel, and to me, a keystone of my youth. She writes:

It is a dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get. (15)

When my mother and I used to take walks together in the woods, she used get so excited, red in the face, with the finding of some simple plane hidden beneath the pine straw. I could hardly see the thing, a rattlesnake orchid for instance, or understand her excitement over it. As an explanation for her glee, she would say, “I have a low threshold for pleasure,” and this is exactly what Dillard is saying with her pennies and the novel as a whole: The world is a mystery, but it is all beautiful, big and small, and we can find peace by opening our senses and experiencing it on all levels. For if we need the great to bring us joy, then there may be a long wait in-between our discoveries. But as Dillard says, ”since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days” (15).

With this beauty there is also death in the world, and suffering. Van Gogh said the world “is a study that didn’t come off” (69). We can’t understand why, or even if this is true; it is a mystery. How does Dillard reconcile this blunt fact with her pennies? To the contrary of Van Gogh, Dillard quotes Einstein saying, “God is subtle, but not malicious, . . . nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning” (7). It is beyond us to understand, but we are still alive, still conscious beings with a life to live—or so we perceive ourselves. We react to death and suffering with our fear and our religious morality. These things, as good mystics know, can be distilled, alchemized. Remember Whitman, “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death” (Whitman 27). Dillard buts it this way:

The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. (181)

This is a farcical Gnostic portrait of Genesis. She plays it lightly because, although this is the world we live in, it illusion, smoke and mirrors, the crust of the conscious mind covering the abyssal depths of the subconscious. It is precisely the self-consciousness that separates us from eternity, the “I and Thou” of Martin Buber. Dillard writes, “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” (79). This division can be reconciled by the “I” becoming the “Thou.” I am thou; not far different from the Old Testament God saying “I am that I am.” There is no truth, no morality, no god, no law, only “Cogito ergo sum”—the existential “I.” So, for the self then, what remains? Beauty. For this, she uses the metaphor of a canary perched upon a globe singing. The whole earth is alive and itself full of music and wonder. Dillard sings “frogs,” “praying mantis cocoons,” “parasites,” “locusts,” “caribou migrations,” and above all, “pennies.”

This is meaning enough. What else does she need? Chaos is just fine by her, death and sin as well. All structures of understanding can be burned away; there is no determinism, there is no death, no individuality—we are all here together on this globe, so what are you going make of it? For Dillard, self-consciousness is a barrier to full experience of the world; it is part of the division, the Christian “fall.” Blake, a good mystic by my reckoning, said, “if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see things as they truly are: infinite” (Blake 188). This sort of “seeing” is all important to Dillard. Most people will see a cedar, where Blake and Dillard see “the tree with the lights” (Dillard 271).

Works Cited

Blake, William. William Blake: The Complete Poems. Alisa Ostriker. ed. London: Penguin, 1977.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York:

HarperCollins, 1974.


That paper is no different than any paper I have written this semester: It lacks polish, time, effort, clarity, and direction. Professor, I am sad that I have failed to represent my writing, writing that I can be proud of to you. I truly enjoy writing essays. This essay bares witness to the passion for Annie Dillard and her beliefs and writing. But the form of the essay itself is immature and unfinished. I wrote it easily and joyfully over a week ago, and now, Thursday night late, it still sits unrevised and unworked upon.

I hope it will suffice. Seeing that I won’t have the pleasure of another class of yours before I graduate, I hope you can find some pleasure in reading it. I do love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek very much.

I wish you a pleasant winter break. The class was a pleasure and a door to new ideas and perspectives. So much was incorporated and discussed. We covered a lot of ground. Thank you and I look forward to seeing you in the hallways in the future—perhaps we’ll find the time to chat.


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