“When the Muse comes, she doesn’t tell you to write; she says, get up for a minute, I’ve got something to show you, stand here.” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I’m still back in February with Annie Dillard. In spite of my dabbling with her essays a few years ago in preparation for my Antarctic adventure, I’m just now letting myself ease into her masterpiece, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I don’t tend to let myself read books that aren’t “about” anything, so I’d been resisting Pilgrim, which “about” the same stuff as Thoreau’s Walden, if less prescriptive. Thoreau makes observations of his time in the woods and distills it into maxims and eager advice; Dillard just watches and wonders aloud, letting us draw our own conclusions.
But oh, the words she finds to do so. The English language is to her what oils were to van Gogh; she draws from an immense palette and piles impossible combinations together to reveal the essence of the thing she observes. Would we have believed the night sky could be painted in enormous swirls of orange, yellow and green? Yet there it is. And this is what it feels like reading Dillard’s words.
But now she is in February, walking the frozen footpath along the creek at the base of Tinker Mountain, scouting muskrats, and remembering her childhood in Pittsburgh – in Shadyside, in fact, less than a mile from where we lived. I understand her love of winter, and perhaps for the first time, understand my own: winter lays things bare, and reveals their essence. In summer – where, for all intents and purposes, I am now – all things are true. Life and green and abundance spill over unbidden, and you can believe that anything is possible. Hope and beauty blossom like dandelions on a neighbor’s lawn, casting their seeds to the wind, catching in everything, then resting overnight before blossoming into the next day with their own new beautiful truths. In summer, you can’t take a step without putting your foot in it.
In winter, though, there’s a sparer beauty, and what comes through are the deep abiding truths you can capture with pencil and paper. The chloroplasts and gossamer threads of summer are swept away by winter’s broom. We are left with the cold hard points of light, uncountable and impossibly far away, but woven into a blanket that wraps our world close on moonless nights. It is all simple math and physics – look, I could write the equations here, if I remember enough of my college physics.
The ice, too, under our feet. It’s just a trick of phase transitions, initial conditions and another simple equation, decreeing that this broad mountainside will rest still and white against the sky. It’s just physics – it doesn’t depend on the tangled knot of evolution, the quirks of our planet’s Goldilocks orbit or any of those theories about how our world was seeded with the right amount of chromium and magnesium to even make our sort of life possible. On Europa, Jupiter’s sixth moon, there is a rocky crust and thin, water-laden atmosphere. On Europa it is always winter, and its mountains are covered with the same sort of snow that rests along the sides of Tinker Creek.
[Apologies to my friends in Minneapolis where, if I understand correctly, it has just snowed. Again.]