Dillard’s Post-Traumatic Wilderness Account

The thing that stood out most to me in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the amount of cruelty that Dillard catalogues in this diary-like collection of her experiences.  In sharp contrast to Thoreau’s journal of his time at Walden, another body of water, Dillard mostly remembers tales of horror that have happened during her time “in the wild.”  Thoreau really avoids talking about the amount of death that he probably witnessed while staying at Walden.  A more modern example like Timothy Treadwell was horrified by the killings, as if he expected some kind of harmonious relationship between all animals, then finding fox cub heads and bear paws ripped off in violent conflict.  Dillard certainly mentions beautiful scenes, but she goes into the most detail with the bloodiest ones.  There are also signs of Dillard not belonging to society, perhaps because of the exposure she has had to all of the death and destruction that seems to have left some post-traumatic stress, conveyed in her writing.

The kind of bloodshed that takes place through the first four chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is inflicted by both humankind on animals and animals on other animals.  The account of humans trying to terminate the number of starlings in Virginia is one area that seems particularly brutal, especially the way in which they are to be mass-exterminated.  The way in which the herring-gulls had their feet frozen into the ice and were then bludgeoned to death, leaving just red stumps where their bodies used to be is particularly morbid, especially if given a human equivalent.  On page 43 she writes, “I’m getting used to this planet and to this curious human culture which is as cheerfully enthusiastic as it is cheerfully cruel.”  This mix of enthusiasm with cruelty is particularly horrifying when one ponders someone, bludgeoning struggling, helpless birds until the lie lifeless and bloody on ice.

Dillard almost relieves the human race of guilt in her accounts of animal-on-animal cruelty.  Her account of the mantis egg hatching and then a gruesome battle to the death shows how quickly they will turn on each other.  She also writes and account of a wasp eating a bee, while being eaten by a praying mantis.  Early in the first chapter is the horrifying image of a river bug, sucking the insides out of a frog.

These accounts seem to discourage, if anything, the act of being in the wild for a long time.  When directly compared to Walden it turns things upside-down.  It is more easily compared to Burroughs in “The Art of Seeing Things” mainly because it encourages observation.  There is also an element of place in the universe as well as shame.  When Dillard is trying to get closer to the coot and sneaking around, remaining perfectly still, she realizes after a while that she has been using stealth in vain:  “I’d been making a perfect idiot of myself all alone in the snow” (47).  Upon discovering how to find praying mantis eggs, she writes “I’m embarrassed to realize how many I must have missed all along” (57).

A major question that arose for me was why this sense of shame.  Of the millions of things that people will miss, why does Dillard have this sense of shame.  To think that she looks like “an idiot” in front of the coot that is fishing is almost like saying the coot should feel like an idiot for not being afraid, it seems as though two different species won’t understand each other simply because of language differences.  Dillard seems to have developed a sense of shame and relationship with nature and animals that causes her to pity their destruction and desire to learn their ways while simultaneously learning of the horrors that transpire.

One thought on “Dillard’s Post-Traumatic Wilderness Account

  1. You will see in the second half of the book Dillard turns more directly to questions of ethics and morality–and so your notion of shame will become even more present. As I mentioned in class, I think “self-consciousness” is the connotation I see, rather than guilt. In some ways, the argument will become: look at what nature is/does–does it have no shame?

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