There are moments in reading that catch you just so, that transform a book into an experience. Perhaps it is just a matter of timing, that you’ve achieved just the right blend of vulnerability, receptiveness and desire and the writer has put together the words in just the right order, with the right emphasis and tone that it simply resonates and you have to break for a moment to recover from the wonderful shock then read it again, tentatively in case it doesn’t work on second reading, or in case it does. And if it does you know you’re onto something, though you might not know what, and you read it again and go back and feel that delicious stirring thrill each time and you know that book will live with you for forever. Perhaps my still slightly sickly state has been an influence, but I had that experience on reading a passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and I make no apology for quoting it in full now:
“I am absolutely alone. There are no other customers. The road is vacant, the interstate is out of sight and out of earshot. I have hazarded into a new corner of the world, an unknown spot, a Brigadoon. Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of cloud dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.
My hand works automatically over the puppy’s fur, following the line of hair under his ears, down his neck, inside his forelegs, along his hot-skinned belly.
Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleaded forest and rumpled rick in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow. These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like a running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.
This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalise this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I’ve lost it, I also realize the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him. He draws his legs down to stretch the skin taut so he feels very fingertip’s stroke along his furred and arched side, his flank, his flung-back throat.
I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your love in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feelings save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognise as separating us from our creator – our very self-consciousness – is also the one thing that divides us from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. I get in the car and drive home.
Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone.”
I’ve tried to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek before. I’ve read that passage before, it must have stirred me last time because the page was already marked. Last time I gave up before the end. It is a dense book: intricate, wild, vivid. It is intense, not something which is an easy read. Last time it was too much. It is a book which demands slow reading. I found it was best to only read one chapter in a sitting.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Dillard’s response to her time spent living next to Tinker Creek. It is, perhaps, an alternative, a modernised, Walden (though I have not yet read Walden, so I can’t say for sure). But it is so much more than that. It is Dillard’s forensic curiosity let wild. During her time at the creek, Dillard aims to see to see and think and learn about the world. Her attention is both broad and singular; she stalks muskrats and bluegills, inspects creek water under the microscope, collects the eggs of the praying mantis, observes the stars and looks for the ‘lights in the tree’ that reveal to her the presence of God in the world. She is both a naturalist and a spiritualist. She is open to all-comers. Her time at the creek is one of connection, of intersection, of openness and investigation. She seeks to set aside her desires, the quibbling voices in her mind, and really see. As she describes here:
“All I can aim for 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. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle, it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely without utterance. ‘Launch into the deep,’ says Jacques Ellul, ‘and you shall see.’”
The book is split into chapters, each focused on a particular subject. Things like: Seeing, Fecundity, Spring and Flood. But whilst the book is segmented in this way, there is a thread which runs through it connected by Dillard’s interest in everything around her, her response to it, the marvellous complexity and detail and a singular search for some kind of truth or meaning. She examines and questions, she observes but she does not conclude. It is a book which is searching and seeing and extremely beautiful. I found in it an affirmation, a resonance, a connection. What Dillard seeks, I seek and somehow both our seekings, in our own way, are connected to, or inspired by, the idea of North. As usual, Dillard says it best:
“A kind of northing is what I wish to accomplish, a single-minded trek towards that place where any shutter left open to the zenith at night will record the wheeling of all the sky’s stars as a pattern pf perfect concentric circles. I seek a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off.
At the seashore you often see a shell, or a fragment of a shell, that sharp sands and surf have thinned to a wisp. There is no way you can tell what kind of shell it had been, what creature it had housed; it could have been a whelk or a scallop, a cowrie, limpet or conch. The animal is long since dissolved and its blood spread and thinned in the general sea. All you hold in your hand is a cool shred of shell, an inch long, pared so thin it passes a faint pink light and almost as flexible as a straight razor. It is an essence, a smooth condensation of the air, a curve. I long for the North where unimpeded winds would hone me to such a pure slip of bone.”
I finished reading Tinker Creek yesterday and for a while afterwards I lay in stunned silence, not speaking, not thinking, just lying and being in the world. I could not do anything ordinary, tasks like arranging the car insurance felt like an alien concept. Just being was enough, it was huge and all encompassing. What Dillard reminded me of was a childhood spent investigating creeks of my own, lying amongst sheep-poo strewn heather on a hillside watching the clouds make shadows on the purple hills opposite and listening to the wind ruffle the harsh grass. I was jealous of Dillard’s time at the creek, but also grateful. Jealous that I have no longer the time to live in such a simple way, though much of my current thinking is edging me in that direction. I guess I will find a way. Grateful because her time there led to this wonder-filled book, full of grubs and egg casings, muskrats and snakes and mosquitos and all the inconceivable forms of life that surround us daily, which we don’t see because our minds are focused on the newspaper. Dillard reminds us to see, and not only to see but to question and she does this without force or didactics but rather with an infectious and irrepressible curiosity that opens the world like a book, points at a page and says ‘see, see, look how extraordinary it is.’