Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
The Tightrope Walker
Like Annie Dillard, that delightfully talented author of prose and poetry who wrote Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, I often become fascinated with the little things in life-the least noticed events-and because of this, perhaps, I then see the entire fabric of life in better perspective.
A naturalist is like an artist in this respect. Every detail is important in producing a finished work or the realization of an idea or a theory. The smallest, most trivial event is inexorably linked to the entire creation. "Catch it if you can," Annie says, "the present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone."
One should learn to practice this perception as early in life as possible. It is somewhat like training for a career as a tightrope walker, always balancing between the probable and the improbable, precariously inching one's way along in order to discover a new way of looking at things, learning to appreciate - to marvel - at the smallest of miracles.
In doing this it's better to recognize the larger miracles when you see them. Which is a trick in itself. A lot of people are blind to the real miracles. Go all their lives without really seeing one. Always waiting for the seas to part, when in reality there are miracles all around them. Even in the world of creepies and crawlies.
Yet it's a strange and unexplainable world, as Annie Dillard warns: "The creator is no puritan . . . There is something that profoundly fails to be exuberant about these crawling, translucent lice and white, fat-bodied grubs, but there is an almost manic exuberance about a creator who turns them out, creature after creature after creature, and sets them buzzing and lurking and flying and swimming about."
Frequently, in all of this process that is so rampant in nature, I find an inner self - like the strange, glowing light that Dillard saw one day in a tree. A revelation, perhaps. No difference whether I am considering the life of a bird, a butterfly, or a cloud. I find new and different parts of me when my mind focuses beyond the human experience. It is a far different dimension than the one we are accustomed to.
I become aware of other truths. That's peculiar, isn't it? And it's exciting. It's like walking to the edges of things, the places most people don't bother to visit.
As for Annie Dillard, she's a national treasure. Pennsylvania-born, she was educated at Hollins College in Virginia. Although she is most noted for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, she is also the author of Teaching A Stone to Talk and An American Childhood, an autobiographical account of her youth, and a number of other books of prose and poetry.
A few years ago I sent her a fan letter along with a poem I had written. I suggested that we swap poems. Well, she had just had a baby, was in the process of moving from one teaching assignment to another or something like that and she didn't send me a poem-but she did take the time to send me a postcard and compliment me on the poem.
I cherish that postcard almost as much as her intuitive way of looking at the world. Anyone who has spent much time outdoors can identify with such observations as: ". . . nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves."
Or one of my favorites: "Seems like we're just set down here," a woman said to me recently, "and don't nobody know why." Maybe I can provide a partial answer to that. We're set down here-those who are lucky enough to have been given the clue-to enjoy the creative works of others, contribute a little something ourselves, and enjoy the incredible living world all about us.
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