Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard. 1974. ISBN 978-0061233326
We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence …
That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac.
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.
I propose to keep here what Thoreau called “a meteorological journal of the mind”, telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.
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.
Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it … I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much.
But there is another way of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I stand transfixed and emptied.
But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes.
An Eskimo traveling alone in flat barrens will heap round stones to the height of a man, travel till he can no longer see the beacon, and build another.
Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.
It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale.
Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.
I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year … I’ll start living; next year … I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world.
The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying; it is a canvas, nevertheless.
That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about the creation.
… even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for. The long ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.
What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest, possible force of their very reality.
Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality, extremism, anarchy. If we were to judge nature by its common sense or likelihood, we wouldn’t believe the world existed. In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is on lunatic fringe.
Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. This is easy to write, easy to read, and hard to believe. The words are simple, the concept clear – but you don’t believe it, do you? Nor do I. How could I, when we’re both so lovable? Are my values then so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves? This is the key point.
Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.
But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die – does not care if it itself grinds to a halt. It is fixed and blind, a robot programmed to kill. We are free and seeing; we can only try to outwit it at every turn to save our skins. This view requires that a monstrous world running on chance and death, careening blindly from nowhere to nowhere, somehow produced wonderful us.
My rage and shock at the pain and death of individuals of my kind is the old, old mystery, as old as man, but forever fresh, and completely unanswerable.
This is what I came for, just this, and nothing more. A fling of leafy motion on the cliffs, the assault of real things, living and still, with shapes and powers under the sky – this is my city, my culture, and all the world I need. I looked around.
Somebody showed me once how to answer a bobwhite in the warbling, descending notes of the female. It works like a charm. But what can I do with a charmed circle of male bobwhites but weep?
Every minute on a square mile of this land – on the steers and the orchard, on the quarry, the meadow, and creek – one ten thousandth of an ounce of starlight spatters to earth.
I didn’t know, I never have known, what spirit it is that descends into my lungs and flaps near my heart like an eagle rising. I named it full-of-wonder, highest good, voices.
Is this what it’s like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass? Must everything whole be nibbled? Here was a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world, the actual plot of the present moment in time after the fall: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling – not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land.
The young man proudly names his scars for his lover; the old man alone before a mirror erases his scars with his eyes and sees himself whole.
No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax – how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? Come on, I say to the creek, surprise me; and it does, with each new drop. Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.
Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.
There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed, your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock, seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” That’s the catch. If you can catch it it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you’ll come back, for you will come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for – dribbling and crazed … Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it comes to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone. You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac.
Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.
Martin Buber (quoting an old Hasid master)
When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.
The physical world is entirely abstract and without “actuality” apart from its linkage to consciousness.
It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.
In nature, the emphasis is on what is rather than what ought to be.
Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.