After my meeting with the Professor of Interdisciplinary Writing this week, I followed up a number of references and ordered a couple of books by Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982). While I have not yet been able to read them in detail, I thought I would flip through them to see if any passages of prose leapt out at me. Immediately I was able to see why Dillard’s work had been recommended.
I was drawn to Chapter 2 Seeing. As a photographer not surprising perhaps. However, the conversation earlier in the week, rightly I think, had revealed my overwhelming reliance on the visual senses. And reading a few passages of Dillard’s work, I became aware of just how inadequate even my visual attentiveness is. I was struck by Dillard’s focus on the “detailed actuality of the natural environment” and her unbounded enthusiasm for everyday natural sightings. In her chapter about seeing, she explains how she used to hide pennies in her local neighbourhood when she was a child and the pleasure that she gained from doing this. She refers to the excitement that others might have in finding this very small amount of money and recounts fleeting glimpses in nature as similarly rewarding:
“It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go on your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a life-time of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.” (1974 p17).
The other section that caught my attention was The Present. A few lines captured my interest and led me to commit to a focused read through the whole book next week. But here are a few quotations that felt pertinent to me:
“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 verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.” (1974 p80)
“Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightening path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and feeing, and gone.” (1974 p80).
And finally, for now, she refers to Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926):
“He writes, “And as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” That great door opens on the present, illuminates it as with a multitude of flashing torches.” (1974 p81).
What a beautiful way of explaining that ephemeral, fleeting moment when we are truly in the present before our consciousness intervenes. This is the moment and the feeling I am trying to encourage and then capture in my photographic images although I need to ensure that I am not overtaken by sensory perception rather than the glimpse of being. I look forward to reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and perhaps picking up some tips from Annie Dillard.
Dillard, A. (1974). Pilgrim at Tinder Creek. New York, Bantam Doubleday Dell.
Dillard, A. (1982). Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York, Harper & Row Publishers.
Graham, S. (1926). The Gentle Art of Tramping. London, Bloomsbury Reader.