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How Annie Dillard Noticed the Natural World by Disappearing Into It

natural world

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

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When Thoreau returned to Boston after his two-year self-imposed exile in Walden Woods, he admitted himself a “sojourner in civilized life again.” In that comment, he divides life between that which is civilized and other.

It is this “other” that has launched more elusive, reflective peregrinator accounts—either spiritualizing or rationalizing the need for escape to nature—than leaves on a beech. But it wasn’t until Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974 that nature amounted to more than an escape from life: it became a way to see life. And quietly, reverently, perhaps even see God in the details (though she holds herself back from playing mystic).

In The Color Purple, Alice Walker writes, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Noticing is Dillard’s (1945 – ) conceptual premise when she ventures into the Virginia wilderness in 1974 and writes Pilgrim, a work of indispensable thoughts and paeans to the world around her. In the traditions of our best modern essayists, she wanders, threading disparate complexities—such wave particles, an old tom cat, and stream boulders—with meaning and connection.

But unlike Thoreau, who welcomed people to his hut and found the utmost delight in cultivation of soil, Dillard leaves nature untouched by civilizing hands. She truly seems to disappear. And in the space full of her withdrawal, nature enters. And Dillard notices.

“It was sunny one evening last summer at Tinker Creek, the sun was low in the sky, upstream. I was sitting on the sycamore log bridge with the sunset at my back, watching the shiners the size of minnows who were feeding over the muddy sand in skittery schools. Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! The sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just happening[.]”

Though a self-imposed observer, Dillard cannot help but humanize the space; she is no observing scientist. She returns to places over and over, and in her words one senses a growing feeling of ownership, pride, and subjective pronouncement.

“The wonder is—given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time—the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all.”

She also cannot help but gift metaphors – a part of language writer James Geary called ‘a way of thought before it is a way of words’  – to her surroundings, humanizing the landscape in an attempt to make sense of its power and chaos.

“It was a clear picturesque day, a February day without clouds, without emotion or spirit, like a beautiful woman with an empty face.”

As the place becomes more familiar, she sees it more deeply and clearly, settling into that level of observation that comes from reverence, shown to us by Peter Mayle’s observations about culture, made available to those who truly relax their self and letting in light of awareness, sight:

“I have just learned to see praying mantis egg cases. Suddenly I see them everywhere; a tan oval of light catches my eye, or I notice a blob of thickness in a patch of slender weeds.”

The mantis are particularly interesting to Dillard: in them she sees a microcosm of life, uninterrupted, and evidence that evolution cares much more about death than it does about any individual being, even going so far as to involve death as a player in the creation of life. For many months, she stalks the mantis eggs and the adults, trying to catch all of the moments of their truly unique reproductive cycle, with a detached—if not incredulous—observation:

“While the male is making up what passes for his mind, the female tips the balance in her favor by eating his head. He mounts her.”

The world is at a knife’s edge, infinitely so. There is a sense that as Dillard shuffles the facts and images around her, so does she her life and its meaning—but gently, not one to preach. She does seem to accept that there is something methodical—be it nature or God—must have had in putting together this panoply of creatures. And if so, God has an abundance of creativity and industry:

“Look, in short, at practically anything—the coot’s feet, the mantis’ face, a banana, the human ear—and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.”

All we have to do is notice.

I’ve been to Tinker Creek, Tinker Mountain, McAfee Knob, a few years ago. Stepped over it, climbed it, stood on it while I hiked the Appalachian Trail, my own pilgrimage of sorts, into this natural world.

natural world
View from Tinker Mountain, VA

I was not aware at the time that it was the Tinker Creek or Mountain of which Dillard wrote. That special place she returned to day after day after day, a vigil of awareness, watchfulness. For me, it was one or two steps between somewhere and over there.

I doubt Dillard would have cared. I doubt she would ever assert his particular place something special, but rather she made it special by her own integration into it. She would have said, “Where is your Tinker Creek?”

Where is that place into which you melt, relax, and let in light? Whether that light be pure vision or something more supernatural. What compells you, pulls you in and exposes your greatness? If you haven’t yet found it, perhaps the reason is that

“[y]ou don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled.”

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Finding self in nature, relaxing and reflecting, and most of all noticing, has been life work of countless creatives and philosophers. Two of my favorites are Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Dillard’s The Writing Life continues her deep insights into life, this time her own.

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