Seeing (like) a Tree: Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

This is the first of a series of readings in which I explore texts that propose the possibility of encountering trees or encountering the world through trees. Like small reviews these readings are supposed to give hints to how human-tree-relationships form the core of what I call ‘the cultural poetics of trees’ in my book project “Making Kin with Trees” which I will officially start writing in March 2021. Each text features one exemplary perspective, book or author and leaves room for connections and comparisons. Look out for texts on seeing, smelling, sitting, writing and becoming (like) a tree in the near future.

What do you look for in a forest? Solace, stress relief, beauty or solitude? What can you bring back from the forest to your “real life”, from encounters with trees, other than cones, twigs and leaves? One answer might be: a new way of seeing. This is an acutely privileged thing to say, let alone write. But encounters with trees, in many parts of the Global North, and certainly most of the parts, which produce the majority of what is recognized as “Nature Writing”, have become less a necessity than a way of “tuning” (Morton) the senses. Indeed, forest dwelling activities like foraging, feeding pigs, collecting firewood and hunting have indeed past-times of the privileged rather than sustaining activities. I want to acknowledge the privilege of not needing to hunt, gather or forage in the forest, not because I’m interested in reinforcing the clichée of a need to “return to nature”, but because I want to draw attention to the no less existential ways in which (Nature) writers engage with trees. Learning to see with or even like trees aims at alienating the “I” from itself in order to see something else. What this “something else” might be and how it might be related (or not) to the desires of “returning to Nature” or, more specifically, to “becoming a tree” is a recurring question of this mini-series and probably the blog as a whole.

It’s tempting to go into the history of ‘seeing’ as a cultural practice, but let it suffice to say that after centuries of exploring the possibilities, conditions and media that make seeing im/possible, it is still mostly regarded as something that “just” happens. Think of how often you are asked to “just” look or open your eyes to see something that has been right in front of you all the time. Especially, if the context has anything to do with “Nature” the supposed immediacy of our senses is often romanticized in a way that makes it look like “culture” spoilt our vision entirely. With regards to plants the in/ability to see is especially striking. There are few texts on plants in recent years (including my own) which resist the temptation of beginning with the phenomenon of “plant blindness” (Wandersee/Schussler): the apparent human inability to see plants at all if there is virtually anything else to see. If for example, there is a picture of a forest and students are being asked to describe what they see, plants are barely noticed at all.

So, to make people see plants is at once a political and a rhetorical task. It’s political because you won’t protect what you don’t notice (presumably – though I do hope that we can manage to find ways to extend our idea of protection in that regard); and it’s a rhetorical feat because you can start your text with a revelation: Look, you are living in a vegetal world! Exposing something that is not exactly new but has been hidden from view is a powerful move that engages readers and listeners. No wonder “revelations” play such an important role in religious discourse. However, from the perspective of trees this is interesting because it complicates seeing further: So you cannot just go and see the trees. You might not see the forest for the trees, but maybe the opposite is true, too: are you not seeing the trees for the forest – that big, dark, meaningful image packed with cultural associations?

Again, culture seems to stand in the way of seeing (no cabin that’s not somehow Thoreauvian, no hut that doesn’t recall some witch or another), but – that’s the beauty of it – the rhetorical revelation is supposed to help you see. It’s weird, if you think about it: instead of going to the woods to see trees, you read a book first, to teach you how to see trees. It is gut-wrenchingly impossible to get around and the problem at the heart of “Nature Writing” and there might be no text rivalling Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at laying the finger in that particular wound:

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. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.” […] 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. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 32.
Okko Pyykkö: Kuopio Forest, CC BY 2.0

I chose Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) because it is one of the most impressive texts of the Nature-mode, I know. See how I slipped in “Nature-mode” so casually? I will use it, because I am – like many Nature Writers by the way – not happy with the label Nature Writing. Like Science Fiction theorist Seo-Young Chu, “by mode I have in mind a category more expansive than ‘genre’ and less determinable.” You will notice with time, that I find Science Fiction and Nature Writing to be much closer related than usually assumed, but for now it is important to note that I understand it less as a genre (the convenient and very useful label you look for in the bookstore) than a mode (a set of practices and ways of relation to the “objects” of writing). 

This becomes particularly apparent in Annie Dillard’s writing. She has been named a “female Thoreau” and that is in as many ways true as it is besides the point. As Diana Saverin puts it, it’s not about the authenticity of wilderness experiences, but about writing choices: “Dillard had never left civilization. She’d simply left civilization out of the book.” That could be said for Thoreau’s Walden, too, but the pathos of Dillard’s Pilgrim is very different from Thoreau and other “great men” of Nature Writing. It is by no means more humble – after all – Dillard’s text is not afraid to ask the very big questions and it is absolutely sure of its artistic quality, but I’d claim that even though she did “leave out civilization”, she developed a keen eye and precise language for small wildernesses. That required learning how to see (anew).

Dillard took that task quite literally. In the beginning of the book, after she tells stories proving her to be an acute observer of what author Kelly Brenner so aptly calls “Nature obscura”, she writes about a surgical procedure that helps people regain their eyesight. Their experiences of seeing for the first time what is mostly an overwhelming “dazzle of color-patches” (29) serves Dillard as a model of describing her own. The description of one girl in particular impressed her:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974 , 35.

The “tree with the lights in it” is a recurring phrase in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Just like the changed vision Dillard claims with this image, the phrase is at once plausible, convincing even, and vague. You know there is something to see – a tree that is not in the “foreground” while light is shining through her* branches, but a tree of which the lights are part, like fruit – but to describe it in the radio voice over that Dillard claims is needed to “really” see what goes on before your eyes. Seeing, as it were, must forge a pact with language and it does so in a truly poetic way. Dillard’s text layers observations and anecdotes from different discourses (personal experience, medicine, nature writing, religion and transcendence etc.) and condenses them (in German “to condense” means “verdichten” which is neatly close to poetry, “Dichtung”). The ensuing image is something that decidedly cannot be seen “for real” and yet it delivers a change in sight that makes sense to the reader. It reveals a world that has been there all along and burdens it with the profound experience of being able to see for the first time at all.

There is no doubt, that it can be a burden to “gain” sight. Where “a distheartening number of [patients] refuse to use their new vision” (29) because it is too overwhelming, Dillard has the ambivalent luck that “the vision comes and goes”. Writing about a “vision” (with many references to theological and transcendental discourses throughout the book) adds another layer that strengthens the poetic quality of the experience. It seems to be a transcendental experience that is, however, brilliantly held back by mundane failures. 

One of them is the attempt to not only see a tree, but see and look like a tree. Dillard encounters a “silly-looking coot”:

I froze stock-still, thinking that after all I really was, actually and at bottom, a tree, a dead tree perhaps, even a wobbly one, but a treeish creature nonetheless. The coot wouldn’t notice that a tree hadn’t grown in that spot the moment before; what did it know? It was new to the area, a mere dude. As tree I allowed myself only the luxury of keeping a wary eye on the coot’s eye. Nothing; it didn’t suspect a thing—unless, of course, it was just leading me on, beguiling me into scratching my nose, when the jig would be up once and for all, and I’d be left unmasked, untreed, with no itch and an empty creek. So.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 45.

This episode, reminiscent of Thoreau’s encounter with a loom at Walden Pond, seems to be a success story of tree-vision at first. Looking like a tree, i.e. convincing herself that “she really was, actually and at bottom, a tree […] a treeish creature”, enables Dillard to observe the bird that she deems too shy to let her observe him any other way. What a beautiful image to become a tree, or at least, tree-like in order to be able to really see what lives around ourselves. But Dillard – and this really makes her writing great – does not hold back in revealing the foolishness of thinking you finally “got” how “it” works:

At its next dive I made the Osage orange and looked around from its trunk while the coot fed from the pool behind the riffles. From there I ran downstream to the sycamore, getting treed in open ground again—and so forth for forty minutes, until it gradually began to light in my leafy brain that maybe the coot wasn’t shy after all. That all this subterfuge was unnecessary, that the bird was singularly stupid, or at least not of an analytical turn of mind, and that in fact I’d been making a perfect idiot of myself all alone in the snow. So from behind the trunk of a black walnut, which was my present blind, I stepped boldly into the open.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 46.

Nothing happens. The whole disguise, the effort of “getting treed” was a game Dillard played with herself. This is more than a funny episode, because it holds a potential for failure that is not re-claimed for the human experience by making it tragic. Absolutely mundane, the misinterpretation of the birds sensibilities, turn out to be no less important than a more sublime failure: there is in the end no way to really know “Nature”. But the attempt counts: “I had gotten, after all, a very good look at the coot.” (47) And, more than that, for a while at least the human in the picture attempted to assume another form, another way of seeing and being seen. Alas, the old practice of camouflage was not enough. It still stank of the human intention to get something, if only a “good lock” from a nonhuman nature. 

A tree, overexposed (Dresden, 2018 CC BY 4.0 Solvejg Nitzke)

To become more tree-like one has to find a way of not wanting, of seeing without intention and, tellingly, this can be only realized in writing. Tellingly, Dillard choses another arboreal image to illustrate what that means:

The broadleaf trees of the world’s forests have cast their various fruits: “Oak, a nut; Sycamore, achenes; California Laurel, a drupe; Maple, a samara; Locust, a legume; Pomegranate, a berry; Buckeye, a capsule; Apple, a pome.” Now the twin leaves of the seedling chestnut oak on the Carvin’s Cove path have dried, dropped, and blown; the acorn itself is shrunk and sere. But the sheath of the stem holds water and the white root still delicately sucks, porous and permeable, mute.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 261.

Seemingly dead, a winter tree is anything but lifeless. It just holds back until more favorable conditions arrive, it cannot force growth, but, then, it doesn’t help for writers to do so either. Like the bell that is being rung (passive!), Dillard discovers in her writing and being-outside that the winter tree knows something about building worlds that she has to learn: to be dead for a while is the condition of life/writing:

The death of the self of which the great writers speak is no violent act. It is merely the joining of the great rock heart of the earth in its roll. It is merely the slow cessation of the will’s sprints and the intellect’s chatter: it is waiting like a hollow bell with stilled tongue. Fuge, tace, quiesce. The waiting itself is the thing.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 261.

I spoke of Dillard’s “pathos” before. There it is. It is not one of control or dominance but neither is it a call for caution and humility – it is the insight that to see a tree means to stand back, to lose oneself and wait; it is the insight that to write a tree means to stand back to lose oneself and wait and not expect a profit. There will be none, but another occasion to wait.

*I tend to use personal pronouns when I know a tree by name. This one is a cedar and hence a “she”. “Hence” means, I decided it is, it could be different – trees are queer anyway, but I more and more refuse to think of them as “it”.

  1. Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological, The MIT Press, 2018.
  2. James Wandersee & Elizabeth Schussler: Preventing Plant Blindness, in: The American Biology Teacher 61 (2), 82-86.
  3. Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. [1975]: HarperCollins e-Books 2014.
  4. Seo-Young Chu: Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2010.
  5. I urge you to read the wonderful Article The Thoreau of the Suburbs by Diana Saverin (The Atlantic, 2015).

Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything

In the very first session of the introduction to Comparative Literature at Ruhr-Uni Bochum, we were taught how to justify picking this subject to our parents. While I have told this anecdote a number of times as a funny twist on how my mother might have been the only person in the entire world who was actually relieved that her daughter decided to go for literature as her subject, I never quite lost the feeling of that first contact with what is now my profession. The feeling is an almost paranoid fear of being called out on doing what is actually a hobby (reading), a weird but all encompassing doubt about both the seriousness and relevance of my work. In short, it is the gut feeling that the “just” in “just fiction” might reflect more that a person’s attempt to discredit the capacity of literature to actually do stuff. 

By now I know that it is not just a feeling – it is the result of underfinanced humanities departments, expectations of “usefulness” and “applicability” that (being derived from engineering and, equally damaging for both cultures, from the natural sciences) have rarely anything to do with the work of a humanities scholar and almost never with the work of literary scholarship. It took me a while to get there, but the tip we were given in that introductory class followed those lines. While this is probably not the worst idea (even though I have doubts whether parents, who are not on board with you studying complit, will come around when the first thing you do is telling them about this French sociologist and cultural capital), I feel a growing sense of Bartleby-esque resistance to thinking of my work in these terms. So, if you came here to learn useful stuff about literature, I will disappoint you right away. This is not what I do. But what am I doing and why do I feel the need to do it despite constantly pointing out absurd conditions in academia and the need to tell people about it, who don’t even do what I do?

Looking for answers to these questions is part of the reason why I opened this blog. As with many things, there probably isn’t a straight response, but there might be more stories, and, as with many more things, for me, they have to do with trees. Not with roots, or branches, or leaves or all the single parts of a tree which lend themselves so well for (often all too heavy) metaphorization, but with the ways in which they require us to form words, stories and poetic texts in order to understand them. If I want answers to the question of why not only me but so many task themselves with writing about writing, talking about language and trying to find ways to put into text how texts become actors (many more meta-activities could be listed), then looking at trees, plants, symbioses and seemingly non-textual or -linguistic relationships might seem counterintuitive. But this is where – excuse the vegetal pun – the roots of the problem can be found.

A weed dinosaur, if you look (not too) closely, growing over human structures, not caring for what we think its species should be able to be

It would be all too easy to claim that it is literature’s job to make legible what otherwise remains incomprehensible. In novels, trees talk, in popular science, humans can read tree rings, in nature writing, humans follow tree roots everywhere – easy, isn’t it? Literary scholars, then, might be reproducing that job by making literature legible through analyzing, categorizing, historicizing. Too easy, indeed – what literary scholars do instead, or rather on top of that, is making things more complicated: Wohlleben tells you trees are friends and help each other? Here’s Johannes Wankhammer researching the different forms of Anthropomorphization and their pitfalls (Wankhammer). Ever heard of forest bathing? Here is Elisabeth Heyne showing you the different modes of perception (rain) forests induce (spoiler, not all are pleasant). And one more: You ask how trees become theme and motive in a text? Here am I telling you, they don’t, instead humans have to become tree-like to even see the giant plants. All of these texts and more are examples for how literary and cultural scholarship is much more than an explaining and archiving device. “We” don’t “just” communicate literature or other discipline’s results. Instead (or, again, on top of that) we find stories and keep telling them. We Reader poems and connect them to more poems, trees, (hi)stories. We excavate layers as much as we add new ones. The kind of knowledge this produces is actually very tree-like, because you can barely access it without becoming a little like it in the process. There is no writing about trees that isn’t making you a little bit arboreal while you’re reading. This might be special for the humanities and especially the Disziplinen dealing with literature. With us, you can see how we alienate ourselves from ourselves in order to melt into someone else and something else’s world (more on the barely hidden reference to hermeneutics and “Horizontverschmelzung” another time…).

In order to ‘see’ (read, hear, understand) the stories trees tell, you need to be able to connect them to other stories. This is what we do (I hereby claim): connect stories and provide a kind of guided tour through a jungle of texts and actors and things and more text, all the while leaving traces, changing the shrubs and producing more text. It sounds a little mysterious, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it is not. There is of course a way of learning how to do this, there are numerous ways of finding the benefit in studying literature…this is mine. Making things more complicated but also more exciting, making you understand less and being more adventurous with how you look around. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me…

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