Friday, February 15, 2013

#6 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker CreekPilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Can you unpeach the peaches? Annie Dillard can't. Meaning she can't see peaches just as patches of color without meaning. That's how people who had been given sight after a lifetime of blindness saw the world: as color patches, no way to interpret them.

One of these, a young woman, saw a tree. Once she had figured out what it was, she called it "the tree with the lights in it." That's what Dillard is looking for.

She found it.

I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost changed and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I'm still spending the power.

It's what I'm looking for too.

That's the main gist of the book, but don't expect it to be all sunshine and roses. (In fact, don't expect any roses.) Nature holds as many horrors as it does wonders. You might dismiss them, but Annie Dillard can't. No, don't expect Annie Dillard to be a John Muir. Everything in nature seemed a delight to Muir. To Dillard...well, she's as likely to be given nightmares by what God puts before her as not. Oh sure, John Muir had nightmares too. When he went out to see the water fall pouring over the rocky lip into Yosemite valley he couldn't sleep the following night because of nightmares of the whole world giving way below him. But those nightmares were more like the Ghost of Christmas Past grasping powerfully at Scrooge's robes and drawing him out the window. Muir, as Scrooge, pleads "I am mortal, and liable to fall." Nature answers Muir "Bear but a touch of my hand there" laying a hand upon his heart, "and you shall be upheld in more than this!"

No, that's not the type of nightmares that Annie Dillard has. Hers are more like a demon grasping her and dragging her through the mire, or a giant water bug trying to suck out her very soul. There then is the conflict of the book: beauty and ugliness*, they not only coexist, they are the opposite sides of the same coin. This is the coin that the Creator has handed to us. What do we do with it? And what do we make of a Creator who hands us such a coin?

What does Dillard do with the coin?

The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

There is goodness, and we must hold to it

I still now and will tomorrow steer by what happened that day, when some undeniably new spirit roared down the air, bowled me over, and turned on the lights. I stood on grass like air, air like lightning coursed in my blood, floated my bones, swam in my teeth. I've been there, seen it, been done by it. I know what happened to the cedar tree, I saw the cells in the cedar tree pulse charged like wings beating praise.


*I don't mean unattractiveness. I mean real ugliness.

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