Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction and secured Annie Dillard’s place in American letters.  It’s not hard to see why.  The so-called “environmental movement” was just merging into the mainstream.  Americans were beginning to understand the natural world not solely as a resource to be conquered, but as something limited and not infinitely flexible, something with its own needs and rhythms.  The early 1970s saw the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.  Due in no small part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published a decade before, Americans were experiencing a “return to nature” the likes of which would have made Thoreau at least a little bit proud.

Dillard’s Pilgrim describes a year in the valley of Tinker Mountain, north of Roanoke, VA.  It’s an area that I know fairly well.  I’ve spent several days hiking along Tinker Cliffs, and several nights camped in the valley alongside that creek.  That and Peters Mountain in Giles County have been my “go-to” spots when I need a weekend to clear the clutter and noise out from between my ears.  Like Dillard, I go there to poke at water bugs, watch vultures reel past the cliff face, and to sit staring out into the dark of the valley at nothing in particular.  Dillard traces a year in the life of the creek, following its changes along with the seasons.  I find her to be at her best when she is reporting some newly-discovered bit of trivia about frogs, grasshoppers, or maple seeds.  She relays the information with a sense of curiosity and child-like wonder that is indisputably disarming.

And yet, while I was reading the book, I had a growing sense of discomfort.  It took me a while to put my finger on why that was.  And then I realized it: there are no people in this book.  At least, no people that matter.  A couple of passing mentions of a farmer or a shop clerk, but virtually no dialogue, no characters.  The entire book is one enormous monologue, partly about Annie Dillard and party about bugs.  The bugs can’t talk, so the book ends up not being about anyone but the narrator, and only about the narrator as an individual in the natural world, not the narrator as a member of the human community.  For me, the result is claustrophobic.  All we get is Annie Dillard as a mental conduit to give words to the water bugs, and not much of Annie Dillard as a person.  After reading through a year of her life, I still don’t know: was she living alone during that time?  Did she have friends?  Family?  Lovers?  Where did she buy her milk?

But you protest: the book isn’t about Annie Dillard buying milk.  It’s about Annie Dillard waxing lyrical about the natural world.  I understand that.  And I understand that a huge number of people respond to that; enough to merit the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.  It’s just that I don’t respond to it.  I need more humanity in my writing.  I wasn’t getting it from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Until the epilogue, “More Years Afterward”.  Here, finally, in the epilogue, I met the Annie Dillard with whom I could sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee.  Annie Dillard the human being.  She all but apologizes for the rest of the book, and says that she’s made up for it with her later book, The Maytrees.  I reproduce the epilogue in its entirety below:

I was twenty-seven in 1972 when I began writing Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.  It is a young writer’s book in its excited eloquence and its metaphysical boldness.  (Fools rush in.)  Using the first person, I tried to be — in Emerson’s ever-ludicrous phrase — a transparent eyeball.

The Maytrees shows how a writer’s craft matures into sparseness:  short sentences, few modifiers.  The Maytrees are a woman and a man both simplified and enlarged.  Everyone and everything represents itself alone.  No need for microcosms and macrocosms.  The Maytrees’ human tale needs only the telling.  Writers’ styles often end pruned down.  (I knew this happened; I did not know I was already that old.)  (2007)

Dillard’s semi-apologetic epilogue is not a bad critique of the “environmental movement” itself.  Environmental activists are still generally decried as “tree-huggers”.  For many of them, it’s not an unfair label.  In my own activism, I’ve watched the campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining find some maturity.  Sure, there are still folks out there talking about coal companies “raping the earth”, crying out for the preservation of Nature, making banners with pictures of trees and deer and crying raccoons or whatever.  And those people are always, always, met with shouts of “but we need jobs!”, “mining is good for the economy!”, and “tree-huggers go home!”  Because they’re making the mistake of asking people to put the plight of owls in front the immediate need of getting a paycheck and feeding the kids.  Which, to be honest, is something the college students with the dreadlocks and the Lorax T-shirts have never actually had to do.

Fortunately, most of the movement has figured out that we need to move past that debate, because it isn’t working.  You can’t leave humanity out of the discussion.  We’ve moved past talking about saving the owls, and are now talking about things like sustainable economies.  We’ve stopped making people choose between their jobs and their ecosystem, and have started looking for ways that they can improve their standards of living — for their generation and the next — without leaving scorched earth behind them.  Talking to water bugs won’t solve that problem.  We need to talk to each other.  Because ultimately, what’s good for us will be good for the water bugs, too.

Devotion & Doubt

Devotion & Doubt

Richard Buckner

For people who aren’t in the performance business, it often comes as a surprise when they find out that their favorite stage performers are indeed putting on an act.  On the one hand, it seems like it should be obvious.  We know it’s a show; we know that it’s entertainment, not ‘real life’.  And yet, because the public face is the only one that we usually see, we’re nonetheless surprised when we see an artist off-stage and find out just how much of an act the show is.  We can’t wrap our heads around the fact that Alice Cooper is a born-again Christian and an avid golfer, that Pee-Wee Herman had his extensive pornography collection seized by the police, or that television evangelist Ted Haggard spends his spare time cooking crystal meth with gay hookers.  Because we forget that all of them are character actors, and that the spectacle is not the person.  It’s no less true in music, politics, or theater.  The performer is the product, and the persona is the marketing.

I know this — I do this for money — yet even I get tricked from time to time.  The Pony Princess and I went to see Richard Buckner at The Southern in Charlottesville.  I had been listening to Devotion & Doubt for a few months, and I had a pretty good idea what to expect.  Melodic, softly arpeggieated guitar, whispered, brooding vocals, and a seated audience in a mostly hushed room.  Because it’s that kind of music.  It’s usually what singer-songwriters do, and why I usually don’t much like seeing singer-songwriters play live.  Buckner’s music is beautiful, powerful stuff, but it almost universally has the same tone.  You come expecting to see a man digging into the depths of his own personal heartbreaks, and that’s exactly what you get.  That’s his act, and he’s a master of it.

So, we stuck around after the show to say hello and thanks.  TPP has been a fan for years; I only more recently found out about Buckner, but I know that as a performer, I like it when people acknowledge that I’ve just done something.  So we hung out while Buckner made his way into the now-lit room to mingle with the scattering crowd.  The brooding was gone.  The man groaning under the weight of his own demons was gone.  Utterly evaporated.  The guy shaking hands and laughing with the audience members was friendly, chatty, carefree.  He told us about his quirky collection of guitars, about how he used to tour with a steel player but found it too much trouble, and generally just shot the shit with anybody who was interested.  Like Alice Cooper hitting the links after a heavy metal festival, Buckner clearly didn’t take his stuff anywhere near as seriously as his Product might suggest.  He had a character that people found they could relate to, so he plays that character in his performances.

That’s not a bad thing.  It’s a good thing.  If I were performing songs that I had written fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t want to still be the same person that I was then.  But I might still want to dig into that character, to perform as the character who penned that song and made people care about it.  In most of my own musical pursuits, I’m playing songs that were written decades before I was born, and I play those characters.  I wear a hat and boots despite never having ridden horses, or I lead shanties despite having never sailed at sea.  I act the playboy despite actually being pretty shy; I act the lout despite being an introvert.  It’s show business, folks, and there ain’t a thing wrong with it.