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Attractions and Dangers of Nostalgia

ISSUE:  Autumn 1974

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
By Annie Dillard. Harper’s Magazine Press. $7.95.

In many respects Annie Dillard’s book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” is so ingratiating that even readers who find themselves in fundamental disagreement with it may take pleasure from it, a good deal of pleasure. Of course confirmed city-dwellers, who want no more of nature than a Sunday stroll in the park, will find it a bore. But to armchair naturalists everywhere, and certainly to those who live in the country and seek a good part of their sense of reality in the natural world, her book offers much that is delightful, percipient, and informative.

Where Tinker Creek is exactly, I don’t know. It doesn’t appear on my maps, nor do other local place names mentioned in the book. But somewhere south of Roanoke—so we infer—and in the Blue Ridge foothills; a rural enough sector, remote though far from wild, since people do appear in the narrative, their roads and bridges, their footholds, households, and farmholds; in short, the quiet countryside, an ambience of nineteenth-century America. This is where Annie Dillard lives, her spiritual as well as geographical location. Here she enjoys not only her creek, which is her continuing fascination, but forests, meadows, hills, and rocks, sycamores and tulip trees, sassafras and bay, towhees, mockingbirds, wrens, rabbits, muskrats, a dense natural environment even if curtailed from its former glory; for she says nothing of the larger predators, nor even of bobcats or owls, nor for that matter of deer. Myself, I live in a cove of the northern Green Mountains where we have deer and bear too, where we can even hope to see, if we are extremely lucky, a stray wolf or moose from Canada; but these do not make up, nor do our common tamaracks and birches, our snow buntings, pine grosbeaks, and arctic owis, for the richness of life in Annie Dillard’s cove on Tinker Creek. And what joy it must be to have spring in March instead of May! I have read her book with pleasure and also with a touch of envy.

So, I imagine, will others. Annie Dillard has done what many would like but few are able to do. She has organized her life, there in her primarily natural habitat, so that she has plenty of time to spend not only in the field but in the library and laboratory as well. She is the person who has read the books you have always promised yourself to read, from Pliny to Henri Fabre; she knows, though she is not a specialist, more about recent work in biological and physical science than you can hope to learn. And she uses her knowledge well. She describes what she has seen and what she has read; and as long as her eye is clearly on its object, her mind focused on that identity, her descriptions are informative, poetic in the good sense, and often moving.

Inevitably, however, she does more than this: she asks what it all means. The hard, incredible beauty of a monarch migration, the cruelty of a female mantis eating her mate while they couple, the insanity of the pine processionary caterpillar that follows unswervingly a track laid down by its leader and does so even if the procession is in a circle, round and round until it dies of starvation,—what force lies behind such beauties, cruelties, insanities? Is it mindless or intelligent, evil or good? How can one explain, in any moral terms whatever, the frightening wasteful fecundity of evolution? She writes: “A lone aphid, without a partner, breeding ‘unmolested’ for one year, would produce so many living aphids that, although they are only a tenth of an inch long, together they would extend into space twenty-five hundred lightyears”—in order that a few hundred may survive. Annie Dillard is appalled. So am I. And not for the aphids’ sake either, but because we know the same principle governs and tyrannizes all life, including, as we need not look far to see, our own.

Yet out of these quandaries Annie Dillard always contrives to emerge with a statement of spiritual affirmation, a statement which is, moreover, though expressive of her own sensibility, conventional in substance. Her book has been compared to Thoreau’s. For a number of reasons the comparison seems unapt, but it contains at least this much justice, namely, that in essence her view is plain old-fashioned optimistic American transcendentalism, ornamented though it may be with examples from quantum physics and biochemistry. She sees ultimate goodness in everything. Or rather, in almost everything; there is one exception, human self-consciousness, the curse of mankind, she says, which prevents us from attaining to the purity of animal existence, absorbed in greater reality. Only in isolated moments do we jettison self-consciousness and break through, by concentrating our attention sufficiently on exterior phenomena, to a recognition of ultimate goodness. These are our epfphanic moments, pinnacles of life, for which we endure the rest. And because she believes this so firmly, Annie Dillard devotes many pages to what can only be called rhapsody, evocation in words of her own epiphanies. Unfortunately much of this writing is confused, exaggerated, sentimental, and unconvincing.

I don’t know if Tinker Creek has any bulldozers. If it does Annie Dillard doesn’t mention them. I do know that the Lamoille Valley of Vermont has plenty of bulldozers; and nothing seems to me closer in spirit to a beaver building its dam or a bee gathering nectar on a bank of phlox than a bulldozer-operator at his work. He is totally unself-conscious, absorbed in his machine. I know; I’ve done it myself. Yet what the bulldozer is up to appalls me just as much as what the aphid is up to; more, in fact, because if there is ultimate goodness in the aphid’s wastefulness there is none at all in the bulldozer’s.

Any artist, any artisan, knows that his moments of insight —or outsight—are a marvel; but they occur in, not out of, life. They are gifts, true; but they are given to those who work for them. They are not holiness but the products of holiness. This is the creative struggle, the craftsmanly and prolonged and utterly self-conscious engagement of mentality with experience, from which we derive our humanity, art, knowledge, and—in any meaningful sense—life itself, the essence, the actual goodness (or badness). Annie Dillard’s book is a work done in “the deep affection of nostalgia” (her words) for an abstract past, with little reference to life on this planet at this moment, its hazards and misdirections, and to this extent it is a dangerous book, literally a subversive book, in spite of its attractions. To my mind the view of man and nature held by any honest farmer—my friend Wendell Berry for one—is historically more relevant and humanly far more responsible than the atavistic and essentially passive, not to say evasive, view held by Annie Dillard.


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