Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 2 : Seeing | Summary



In a flashback to her childhood when she used to hide pennies, Dillard describes her delight in thinking of the lucky person who would find this "free gift from the universe." As she heads outside this first week in January, she thinks of the many pennies some other hand (God) has hidden for her.

People have to know how to look, how to focus their eyes to see what is hidden right in front of them. She illustrates this kind of seeing with a story of how she was surprised when a flock of blackbirds suddenly flew out of a tree. She had mistaken the birds at first for the tree's leaves. "It's all a matter of keeping my eyes open," she says. But seeing is a difficult task: "I see what I expect." Real seeing involves a "letting go"; instead of using a camera, an "unscrupulous observer" becomes the camera itself.

Recalling a summer evening when she stayed late at the creek, she is awed by how much there is to see and cannot decide where to look: at the fish or the turtles, the muskrats or the rattlesnakes or the sparrows. Other things are so vast or so small they exist beneath her notice—like the planaria (flatworms) and amoebae (single-celled organisms) in a bowl of creek water she brings home.

A story she reads in a medical text gives Dillard a clarifying image. When people who are blind since birth undergo surgery to restore their vision, they cannot at first understand what they are seeing. Shape, distance, and even light and dark confuse them. They see in "color-patches." Dillard has a similar experience; she sees a cedar tree as if it were ablaze with light, feeling this experience on a cellular level. This momentary vision of the "tree with the light in it" enthralls her.


In this chapter Dillard introduces one of the most important ideas of the book: seeing. In fact, Southern novelist and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty (1909–2001) viewed the entire book as a "meditation on seeing."

Many things stand in the way of seeing clearly, Dillard writes. Some of these obstacles are physical: optical tricks that light, shadow, and reflection can play on our eyes. But others are the result of a willful failure to see, of focusing on unimportant things and not allowing the self to become completely free of them for the moment. People also distance themselves from reality with language. Dillard agrees it is necessary at times to analyze what one sees, to label it with words. But something vital is always lost when one tries to capture an experience with words. Nevertheless, Dillard realizes it is impossible to stop the constant river of thought. The best anyone can do is be ready when those unexpected moments of pure awareness occur.

She quotes Thoreau about how seeing with the senses is superior to seeing through the preconceptions imposed by the mind. To clarify this concept, Dillard uses the rhetorical device of synesthesia—describing one sense in terms of another—to verbalize the essence, or cellular level, of seeing with the senses; for example, "a new light roars ... and the mountains slam" combine sight with sound. "When I see this way, I see truly," she writes.

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