Nature’s ‘Amoral Spirituality’ in Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

J.M. Lesinski

Throughout reading Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” an observation can be made that her novel does not moralize the natural world, but does to the human-centric world we live in. One of my own core beliefs about man and our relationship to nature is that nature is inherently amoral. This notion of spiritualism we come to expect as humans is intangible, yet we can sense it around us and within us, and in one place more than any other: nature.

Dillard describes variety in nature in a way that coincides with the wastefulness she mentions here, “Nature is, above all, profligate.” (Dillard 66). When I really think about nature and the natural world, I mainly think of the incredible amounts of variety within it. Between the old biology class lesson on phylum, genus, species, etc. I never really thought about the vacuity of every single kind of specimen.

When Dillard talks about parasites especially, I found myself enthralled in the very questioning of their need for existence. Dillard has another quote that I think speaks to both variety and profligate: “Nature will try anything once.” (Dillard 66), which to me seems to say nature has a process for everything.

If nature experiments with ways of say, eating, species to species, there is variety and wastefulness inherent to that natural process. Humans eat with utensils, whereas spiders vomit on food before eating it. Though a bit general, this sample comparison illustrates variety in nature through the two evolutionary ways of ingesting food. In terms of the profligate, we cannot forget the fact that food eventually wears us down. Be it stomach wall lining, digestive system issues, or weight problems, there is always a mechanism inside us that digests food but affects our health as well.

Off that cheery, contemplative note, I found a quote later in that summarized that idea rather well. “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.” (Dillard 178), tells me that evolution is not only real, but functions in unison with nature. Nature, being amoral, shows both sides of the enticing spectrum of life in beauty and horror. The evolutionary cycle is inherently naturalistic. There is no morality to evolution, in essence, it does just boil down to creatures killing each other more efficiently. “Divinity is not playful.” (Dillard 275), says that rather nicely.

Dillard asks a very important question in regards to life and death as well in the following, “Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?” (Dillard 270). Beauty and horror are one in the same in many respects, like how science is more art, and vice versa.

The contrasts add to the meaning, so one could not function without the other. Beauty creates reason, horror creates means for survival, and at the core of it all is where a hypothetical, personalized spiritual force propels us without clarified reason. In human terms, I would say that could be representational of death. Dillard plays a lot with the idea of “letting go” in her writing too.

This brings up some thought on perception. Dillard makes a statement that seems quite fair to how we perceive nature: “Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair.” (Dillard 18). The beauty and horror of nature both come down to context and circumstance.

In the light of the beauty of nature, things that seem circumstantial, are illuminated as fantastic or meaningful in some greater capacity. In the context of the darker side of nature, we see what our mind wants us to derive from the situation, and often fail to appreciate the intricacy of the functioning nature at work behind the scenes. There’s almost some kind of veil that makes the two parallel in such a way, a nod Dillard perhaps gives in the following, “It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.” (Dillard 9)

I think Dillard makes a few comments on spiritualism that really speak to the contemporary world today on a deeper level. “Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present.” (Dillard 82), illustrates the state of which many people dictate their daily lives, focusing on worries and concerns, and thereby hindering the experience itself. “Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people – the novelist’s world, not the poet’s.” (Dillard 82).

I love that comment for two reasons: 1) the fact that there is a clear differentiation on writing itself, and 2) the truth of the metaphor of viewing oneself through a mall window. If self-consciousness were to personify itself as a person, he/she would be an odd amalgamation of Narcissus and God. Humans want so badly to see the best of ourselves, or to have others see it, we often overlook the world’s beauty in the process. I think nature’s role in that brings us back to the core of self, not the add-ons, or compatibility with others.

We are inherently social beings as humans, that part will take care of itself, and we instead should focus on ourselves and the world around us. “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object.” (Dillard 83). The mere concept of an “unself-conscious” state of mind seems impossible, but in nature, that paradox makes perfect sense when the moment of intimacy with nature actually occurs.

Dillard often describes nature as amoral. I wondered though, what Dillard thinks about free will. Nature has many processes and truths, but ultimately does not possess a fate like humanity perceives itself to. On Dillard’s point of nature being amoral, I wanted to really examine the point she clarifies that and figures her own viewpoint out. The following quote, “Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” (Dillard 179), really examines the gravity of reality.

If nature were a monster, there would be less intricacy and variety. Dystopian literature often examines uniformity and the lack of individualism. Of Dillard’s response, “Of the two ridiculous alternatives, I rather favor the second. Although it is true that we are moral creatures in an amoral world, the world’s amorality does not make it a monster. Rather, I am a freak.” (Dillard 181), I can’t say I disagree (not that I necessarily would go as far to designate Dillard a freak, but more so the principle of the comment). Amorality does not make nature a monster, nature is nature, there is no acquired consciousness to it. Rather, the consciousness we acquire as humans comes from nature.

I believe Dillard’s core belief by the end of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is that nature is amoral, but alive and very much the spiritual energy around and within us. In the same respect, humans are both moral and alive with spirit, but need to earn a sense of self-awareness to imbibe in the spiritual trough of life. We need to recognize amorality and immorality as different things. The conscious-level connection with nature comes naturally, there is no logic to the acquisition of spiritual truths, but rather a subconscious acceptance we cannot even comprehend.

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I have worked as a professional journalist for over five years now, covering the arts, music, food, politics, and culture up and down both coasts of the United States. I have a B.A. in English from SUNY Fredonia with minors in Psychology and Creative Writing, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

Buffalo, NY

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