Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Looking For Pennies

 A couple of years ago, I read an insightful excerpt from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. The passage moved me so much, I actually hand copied the whole excerpt and gave it to our priest to read. It is not religious in nature; the author describes the art of seeing and discovering the riches that Nature unfolds before our eyes every day. And yet, how can this not be religious? Can we really separate the glory of  Natural creation from the supreme Author, the ultimate Creator? This is a rather lengthy passage, but I know you will be enriched by taking the time to read it. I will put Ms. Dillard's words in tan, emphasis mine:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I've never been seized by it since. For some reason I always 'hid' the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street.

 I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY.

I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passerby who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about, I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought until, some months later, I would be gripped by the impulse to hide another penny.

It is still the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But- and this is the point-

who gets excited by a mere penny?

If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den,

Will you count that sight a chip of copper only and go your rueful way? It is a dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny.

But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and  simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

Unfortunately, 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. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils. For nature does reveal as well as conceal: now you don't see it, now you do.

For a week last September, migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away. They simply materialized out of the tree.I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer, and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged: the birds were apparently weightless as well as invisible.

Or it was as if the leaves of the Osage orange had been freed from a spell in the form of red-winged blackbirds: they flew from the tree, caught my eye in the sky, and vanished. When I looked again at the tree, the leaves had reassembled as if nothing had happened. Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree, and a final hundred, the real diehards, appeared, spread, and vanished.

How could so many hide in the tree without me seeing them? The Osage orange, unruffled, looked just as it had looked from the house, when three hundred red-winged blackbirds cried from its crown. I looked downstream where they flew, and they were gone. Searching, I couldn't spot one. I wandered downstream to force them to play their hand, but they'd crossed the creek and scattered. One show to a customer.

These appearances catch at my throat; they are the free gifts, the bright coppers at the roots of trees.

It's all a matter of KEEPING MY EYES OPEN. Nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot? .......

IF I CAN'T SEE THESE MINUTIAE, I STILL TRY TO KEEP MY EYES OPEN. I'm always on the lookout for ant lion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves. THESE THINGS ARE UTTERLY COMMON, AND I'VE NOT SEEN ONE. I bang on hollow trees near water, but so far no flying squirrels have appeared. In flat country I watch every sunset in hopes of seeing the green ray. The green ray is a seldom-seen streak of light that rises from the sun like a spurting fountain at the moment of sunset; it throbs into the sky for two seconds and disappears.

BUT THE ARTIFICIAL OBVIOUS IS HARD TO SEE. My eyes account for less than one percent of my head: I'm bony and dense.

I see what I expect.

The lover can see, and the knowledgeable....The point is that I just don't know what the lover knows; I just can't see the artificial obvious that those in the know construct....

A fog that won't burn away drifts and flows across my field of vision. When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you see not the fog itself but streaks of clearness  floating across the air in dark shreds.

So I see only tatters of clearness through a
pervading obscurity.

I can't distinguish the fog from the overcast sky; I can't be sure if the light is direct or reflected. Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls.

We rock, cradled in the swaddling band of darkness.

Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind.

You can read more of Ms. Dillard's moving and lovely words in her book, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.