Magnifying Meaning: Making Sense of Annie Dillard’s Methods

By Analiese Bush ’22

Environmental Studies

Brief Description: A review of writer Annie Dillard’s techniques and methods in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

The following was written for American Environmental Writing (ENG 347).

Magnifying Meaning: Making Sense of Annie Dillard’s Methods

Have you ever gone herping? Herping is the act of going out and finding slippery squirmy reptiles and amphibians in habitats. The idea of herping tickles me although I have never properly gone myself. Squishing through the rotting organic layer blanketing a forest floor, arriving at a decaying log… Flipping the log, soggy bark breaking off in your hands, you pray to see a succulent salamander shrinking away into the wet leaves. I have never succeeded in seeing the salamander, usually turning up empty-handed as disgruntled millipedes and pill-bugs scuttle to safety while a confused earthworm wriggles blindly back into the ground.

The delightfulness about these altars of decay is the eerie image of life teeming in the presence of so much death. Even if you don’t score a glance at a salamander, it’s stunning under that log. It’s wonderful and upsetting all at the same time. Maybe you watch agog and grateful for the earthworm’s gift of decomposition. Maybe your reaction is so visceral that all of your organs scream out to retreat and save yourself before it’s too late. Maybe you vomit in a neighboring pile of leaves. Annie Dillard might do both simultaneously if she partook in a bit of afternoon herping. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek spells out her track record of observing as much as possible as intensely as possible in her environment. She stares ferociously at, through and beyond everything that enters her field of vision. She dismantles each new specimen into its smallest particles and then generously give us her eyes to view the bugs, worms, and creepy-crawlies with the same laser-focus. Her microscopic lenses let her peel back the bark on the rotting log of Tinker Creek and drill down to the heart of life. This magnified vision grounds her writing in the belief that there is always something new to be missed and a deeper meaning to be explored. To mimic the myriad layers of life, Dillard disguises her own argument with extravagant swirling descriptions. Through careful reading and external connections to David Abram’s The Ecology of Magic, readers can elicit more substantial meaning from Dillard’s work. It is up to the readers to explore Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with the same care and focus that Dillard took to the studies of her own home.

Annie Dillard’s vision manifests in many forms throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This is to say that the lenses she uses to interpret the world around her come in a variety of specifications, much like the lenses on a microscope. A standard high school microscope has at least three lenses set at different magnifications to adjust the ratio of context and detail. Dillard has a similar suite of lenses, chapter structure being the lowest magnification with the most context. Chapter structure is crucial to Dillard’s rhetoric. She wants to communicate the hierarchy of order and the cycling of nature. Each chapter begins with a broad anecdote where from Dillard’s life which sometimes connects to the previous chapter. With each click of a new lens, she dissects the general story and links in related evidence. Sometimes the chapter loops back to where it started as Dillard zooms out and other times, she stays zoomed in leaving us with so many minutiae and so little context that we lose touch with the bigger picture. The most fitting example of this pattern comes in “Intricacy.” This aptly named chapter opens with the journey of a light particle hurtling away from its parent star. The photon bounces off of her goldfish’s tail after wending its way through her kitchen. With “an eyeful of fish-scale and star,” she reduces her fish from its species level to its anatomical level and finally to its cellular level (Dillard 127). The elodea in his bowl becomes two layers of cells then the chloroplasts then the chlorophyll then a ring of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms encircling–the entire possibility of plant life–a magnesium atom (Dillard 128). As the chapter veers into Dillard’s typical musings about why life is the wonderful thing it is, she ultimately zooms out enough to define the underlying mechanisms of beauty. The fact that “any pattern of speckles can appear” in a constantly changing world is what makes each individual organism so precious (Dillard 147). The scant probability that any life-bearing universe emerged, that any chemicals reacted and cells organized is what holds the beauty. The goldfish itself is not impressive without the context of the complicated chemical interactions and genetic selection that led to its chance creation. To magnify its beauty, she considers the fact that even the smallest exchange of an iron atom for a magnesium atom would have changed its blood cells to chloroplasts. Similarly, as we pare back Dillard’s ramblings her underlying meaning shines through. And yet it wouldn’t be nearly as stunning if we hadn’t done the work to dig deep in the first place and appreciate the surrounding rings of her observations.  

In the spirit of intricacy, it would be foolish to analyze Dillard’s goals of the project with just one vein of descriptions. In other words, we are missing the point if we only resonate with her descriptions of the beautiful luck that is life. These charming depictions of nature evoke visceral reactions in even the author herself. Her own lungs spread apart painfully in the wake of a cloud of starlings and her mind buzzes after seeing the tree with the lights in it. “Fecundity” casts these riveting depictions in an unsettling hue. Dillard painfully acknowledges she might have been misrepresenting nature thus far. If we have not read closely then we feel betrayed and abandoned. However, the instances of nature’s cruelty were present in Dillard’s writing all along. The wave of Dillard’s exploration of gluttony and wasted life began as early as her witness to the crimes of the giant water bug. The impact of Dillard’s realization of life’s ugly underbelly is so strong due to the amount of time it has been festering.

From the beginning, the giant water bug has been liquifying the frog, the praying mantis eating her mate, and the matted moth limping down the school walkway. These stories were all visible albeit clouded out by adjacent observations. Had we analyzed her initial chapters with a higher magnification we might have spotted this troubling foreshadowing. More abstractly, Dillard even diagnoses nature early on as extravagant rather than thrifty. Her repetition of extravagant portrays nature as a frivolous spender, its resources quickly evaporating as it “exceed[s] the limits of reason or necessity” (“extravagant, adj.”). The flagrant consumption and disposal of life she grapples with is especially tricky for a human narrator to explore. The next microscope lens reveals a writhing mess of unexplained ethical conundrums lurking below the molecular and cellular structure of organized life. Why is so much life put here if it’s destined to suffer violently or die prematurely? What sense are we supposed to make of all of the intraspecies killings and interspecies leeching? A food web that seems logical and conscious of recycling its waste is discovered to be an “irrational excess, an absurdity” (“extravagance, n.”). It appears nature holds no respect for all of the beautiful intricacy and care put into designing life. There is no meaning other than to chomp and be chomped. By subtly building to “Fecundity”, Dillard has snared us in the same trap that nature first captured her. So swept up by beauty she forgot to focus closer at the squirming mass of unfairness supporting it all. Without finer calibrated lenses, we too missed the obvious and hidden threads of gluttony and parody.

Although her observational skills are admirable and her tenacity valiant, Dillard will never be able to pop the kernel of truth that holds the motive for nature’s seemingly irrational excess. No microscope lens or western theory can be that finely tuned to understand the ethics of nature. While we can analogize and symbolize the world around us, we cannot fully comprehend its reasoning. David Abram’s learnings can help to alleviate the pressure to specify, justify and rationalize all of nature’s actions. Instead of finding the meaning of life through magnification, Abram learned to embrace the limitations of western thought and interpretation. Alas humans, especially western humans, are incapable of “[knowing] with the same familiarity and intimacy, the lived experience of a grass snake or snapping turtle” (Abram 826). While we might have lived adjacent experiences, we can never grasp the true “living sensations of another form” (Abram 826). With these lived experiences comes a whole body of knowledge that we may never be privy to see. Along with this knowledge comes wisdom and mystery and magic. Abram defines magic as the ability to realize the various intelligences of the world and then live harmoniously among them (822). Pry as we might with scalpels, cameras, and electron microscopy we can only estimate the lived experiences of the grass snake and snapping turtles with our terms. Their language and culture remain untouched, lost in our inadequate vocabulary.  

Even Dillard eventually admits that she could be barking up the wrong tree when trying to apply human ethics to the universe. She presents two avenues at the end of “Fecundity”: “Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak” (Dillard 179). If she is not a freak and her ethics carry weight, then the processes that created her are ruthless and unjust. If she is a freak, then her morals are invalidated by her own creator. Abram’s insight paves a new avenue for Dillard to consider. It is not for humans to pass judgment on the conduct of other life because we will never understand its true motivations. If we acknowledge the intelligence of every other species, rock, and particle of light then we can relax our grip and tap into a shared universal wisdom. In trying to explain and comprehend every intelligence instead of accepting every intelligence, we lose the chance to revel in the magic of the unknown. By the last pages, Dillard has come to welcome that “The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet” (Dillard 275). Things are not meant to make sense to anything other than the dark inaccessible power that made them. If we throw out the microscope or just zoom out to a greater context, then beauty and death begin to harmonize again.

With ample time and abundant close-reading skills, Dillard’s hidden meanings become more obvious. Whether we peer at samples of detailed descriptions under our scopes or gaze at landscapes of foreshadowing through the lens of a panoramic camera, we can make peace with her incomplete understanding of place. We, like Dillard, will certainly stumble in and out of acceptance of this incompleteness, if we endeavor to find the magic Abram describes. The squirmy unsettling morals of the power that made nature will always creep below the surface, but don’t be afraid to plunge right in. Feel your lungs roar and your brain buzz. Get chomped and chomp back. Ask questions and stay freaky all the while knowing that you can switch your lens, zoom out and refocus on the harmony of life and death.

Next time you find yourself toe to toe with a rotting log, peel it, rip it, flip it. Behold the mess of life slithering through so much squishy death. Shudder as your instinctive alarm bells ring out begging you to flee. Puke a little. Pick the brain of the wriggling earthworm. Send your condolences to the millipedes and pill bugs. Most importantly, should you ever see a splendid salamander, please, give me a call.

Works Cited

Abram, David. “The Ecology of Magic.” American Earth: American Environmental Writing           Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben, foreword by Al Gore, Penguin Putnam, Inc.,      2008, pp. 815-834.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. HarperCollins, 1974, New York.

“extravagance, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, Accessed 13 November 2021.

“extravagant, adj.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster,         https://www.merriam-   Accessed 13 November             2021.

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