The Power of Seeing in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Earth Day Flag created by John McConnell. Image via WikiMedia Commons.
Earth Day Flag created by John McConnell. Image via WikiMedia Commons.

A sense of wonder imbues Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s yearlong account of observing and responding to the natural world she inhabited in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1975, when she was twenty-nine years old, it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. In her opening to a mixed review for The New York Times, Eudora Welty writes of Pilgrim, “The book is a form of meditation, written with a headlong urgency, about seeing.”

On this eve of Earth Day, we return to Pilgrim for that urgent, yet patient, way of seeing, knowing that any motivation to preserve the planet must stem from a feeling of connection to it. Established in 1970 to commemorate environmental awareness, Earth Day and its conception by activist John McConnell are forever linked to the image of Earth taken from space during the Apollo Mission of 1969. In celebration of the annual event, McConnell designed an Earth Day flag featuring that famous NASA photo of “The Blue Marble.”

In her final paragraph of Pilgrim, Dillard evokes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nineteenth-century dream of seeing the world “floating at will in the great Ether,” diminished to the size of an apple. “Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, ‘This must thou eat.’ And I ate the world,” Emerson wrote. In closing with that communion, Dillard makes a powerful statement about the unity between Earth and observer. During times of feeling separate and small in relation to climate change and other grand environmental challenges, there is always a grounding connection to be found in Pilgrim.

In response to her own searching questions, Dillard writes: “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.” Read on for some more memorable reflections on seeing from Pilgrim, then go for an Earth Day walk in your neighborhood, feeling and looking closely. As for that sense of wonder you might feel? If you nurture it, it can carry you through the year.

“It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”

“Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly.”

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

[On the possibility of viewing a time-lapse film of our planet]: “Slow it down more, come closer still. A dot appears, a flesh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life.”

“I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold up his head has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to find out … Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”