Eskimos and Pilgrims

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek: The end

No, really, Annie Dillard, why did you write so much about Eskimos in the last half of your book?

Later a report interviewed me over the phone.  “You write so much about Eskimos in this book,” she said. “How come there are so many Eskimos?”  I said that the spare arctic landscape suggested the soul’s emptying itself in readiness for the incursions of the divine.  There was a pause.  At last she said, “I don’t think my editor will go for that.”


I’m of the opinion that the answer she claims to have given the reporter leaned on the side of malarkey.  If not that my respect for the work greatly diminishes.

So why the Eskimos?

There is no denying the book has a very significant spiritual element to it: especially in the second half of the book where the Eskimos make their presence known. What do Eskimos have to do with Tinker Creek? She frequently revisits other writers, like Pliny or Thoreau. She also revisits images from her creek, like the frog and water bug. However, she is revisiting an entirely different landscape, seemingly unconnected to what she is living.

She writes about the arctic landscape (though not so much as her flippant answer might indicate), she also writes about their myths, legends and everyday practices. Having not researched the Eskimos (or the Inuit as they are often called now) too in-depth, I cannot with authority challenge the validity of her information. However, having read the rest of the book I am well aware she does take poetic license and so, I wouldn’t write a research paper on life in the Arctic using what I’ve learned from this book as my source material.

Eskimo Pie

So what does the invocation of an Eskimo usually bring to mind? Eskimo kisses, with noses rubbing together instead of lips pressed against one another (I’ve heard of these being called Butterfly Kisses, too). A chocolate coated ice cream treat. A fur lined hooded jacket. Fishing through holes cut in the ice. Seals, sledding, igloos, snow and cold.

The nature that the Eskimo (I am going to keep using the term that Dillard used, since I think she was striving for a certain idea and not an anthropological study—nor had the use of Inuit become wide spread by the time that she wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) lived with is entirely different than what Dillard is living with in her book. She has a green lushness, a small body of water, domesticated and undomesticated animals, changes in temperature that result in four seasons… the list goes on.

I think the clue is in the title of the book. Pilgrim is a word in the title, which I had mostly brushed off, even ignored, through most of my reading of this book. However, I think, especially in light of all the spirituality in the second half, that it is a keystone to understand the book. And the Eskimos.

Pilgrims, like Eskimos, have a certain iconic status in American culture. They are saltshakers and doormats. They have been flattened down to two dimensions.  That however, is not what a pilgrim really is.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t have a car at school for the first couple of years. However, I still needed to get to church every Sunday. My first Sunday, of my freshman year, I remember, I tried to find my way to the church that I had looked up online. I walked from my side of the campus, to the other side, through the student parking lot (which was nicknamed Guam because of its distance from everything else); I walked along the side of the road, (Mattapany Road–which is the oldest road in Maryland) past a few fields and up a hill. I walked for what felt like forever. And I wasn’t willing to explore much further on my own after a solid 45 minutes of walking in my church clothes. I gave up, turned around, walked back to my dorm and called my parents in tears.  They drove back down to the campus (a two hour drive) and then drove me to where the church was so I would know. I only had to make it just to the other side of the hill I had been climbing and there lay St. Cecilia’s. For the next three years I woke up, walked up that hill and went to church. I called it my pilgrimage. I was joking every time I said it, but that is far closer to what a pilgrim is than a saltshaker.

Dillard is on a journey in this book. And while pilgrimages can be made in groups, the spiritual discoveries are not made that way. There is solitude to them. A solitude that the quietness of the Arctic can replicate. That does play into her wordy answer that the reporter rejected.

I find the Eskimos presence troubling, in the book, no matter how many ways I shoehorn it. They do have that alone quality of a spiritual pilgrim, by geography alone. That is not how she portrays them however. She doesn’t journey to the Arctic, at least not physically. (Perhaps metaphysically….). I don’t trust her as a factual source, so she isn’t really changing my perception of Eskimos.

What she knows of Eskimos comes from books, not personal knowledge. Something that is in sharp contrast to what she speaks about Tinker Creek. I do believe that she spent lots of time observing and living Tinker Creek. And I will stretch myself and believe she did read about Eskimos. Is she like an Eskimo to us? I am reading about her and Tinker Creek as she read about them. Does she see herself in a white space, a sort of mental and spiritual Arctic, slowly filling in the gaps (she says the spirit is to be found in the cracks and crevices) with her observations of natural life?  Perhaps that is the case. Alone the Eskimos don’t mean much, but as part of an analogy between them, her and us, her readers, they take on new meaning.

I’m not sure, I sort of feel like I am attempting to fish through a hole in the ice in trying to find an answer to this.

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