“Seeing” by Annie Dillard from “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

“Seeing” by Annie Dillard
from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial 1974)

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 passer-by 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 again
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 kid paddling from
its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is 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.

I used to be able to see flying insects in the air. I’d look ahead and see, not the row of hemlocks
across the road, but the air in front of it. My eyes would focus along that column of air, picking
out flying insects. But I lost interest, I guess, for I dropped the habit. Now I can see birds.
Probably some people can look at the grass at their feet and discover all the crawling creatures. I
would like to know grasses and sedges—and care. Then my least journey into the world would be
a field trip, a series of happy recognitions. Thoreau, in an expansive mood, exulted, “What a rich
book might be made about buds, including, perhaps, sprouts!” It would be nice to think so. I
cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people. One collects stones. Another—an
Englishman, say—watches clouds. The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater which
he examines microscopically and mounts. But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut
myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.

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 finally hundred, the real diehards, appeared, spread, and
vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my 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? Specialists can find the most incredibly well-hidden things. A book I read
when I was young recommended an easy way to find caterpillars to rear: you simply find some
fresh caterpillar droppings, look up, and there’s your caterpillar. More recently an author advised
me to set my mind at ease about those piles of cut stems on the ground in grassy fields. Field
mice make them; they cut the grass down by degrees to reach the seeds at the head. It seems that
when the grass is tightly packed, as in a field of ripe grain, the blade won’t topple at a single cut
through the stem; instead, the cut stem simply drops vertically, held in the crush of grain. The
mouse severs the bottom again and again, the stem keeps dropping an inch at a time, and finally
the head is low enough for the mouse to reach the seeds. Meanwhile, the mouse is positively
littering the field with its little piles of cut stems into which, presumably, the author of the book is
constantly stumbling.

If I can’t see these minutiae, I still try to keep my eyes open. I’m always on the lookout for
antlion 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. One more reason
to keep my eyes open. A photography professor at the University of Florida just happened to see
a bird die in midnight; it jerked, died, dropped, and smashed on the ground. I squint at the wind
because I read Stewart Edward White: “I have always maintained that if you looked closely
enough you could see the wind—the dim, hardly-made-out, fine debris fleeing high in the air.”
White was an excellent observer, and devoted an entire chapter of The Mountains to the subject
of seeing deer: “As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial
obvious, then you too will see deer.”

But the artificial obvious is hard to see. My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight
of my head; I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect. I once spent a full three minutes looking at a
bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic
campers were shouting directions. Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow
said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against: the thing
wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.
The lover can see, and the knowledgeable. I visited an aunt and uncle at a quarter-horse race in
Cody, Wyoming. I couldn’t do much of anything useful, but I could, I thought, draw. So, as we
all sat around the kitchen table after supper, I produced a sheet of paper and drew a horse. “That’s
one lame horse,” my aunt volunteered. The rest of my family joined in: “Only place to saddle that
one is his neck”; “Looks like we better shoot the poor thing, on account of those terrible
growths.” Meekly, I slid the pencil and paper down the table. Everyone in that family, including
my three young cousins, could draw a horse. Beautifully. When the paper came back it looked as
though five shining, real quarter horses had been corralled by mistake with a papier-mâché
moose; the real horses seemed to gaze at the monster with a steady, puzzled air. I stay away from
horses now, but I can do a creditable goldfish. 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. The herpetologist
asks the native, “Are there snakes in that ravine?” “Nosir.” And the herpetologist comes home
with, yessir, three bags full. Are there butterflies on that mountain? Are the bluets in bloom, are
there arrowheads here, or fossil shells in the shale?

Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that
comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many
animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my
knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that
the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically
interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the
universe as it is.”

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 don’t see 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 estimate now that only one
atom dances alone in every cubic meter of intergalactic space. I blink and squint. What planet or
power yanks Halley’s Comet out of orbit? We haven’t seen that force yet; it’s a question of
distance, density, and the pallor of reflected light. We rock, cradled in the swaddling band of
darkness. Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind. Last summer, in
August, I stayed at the creek too late.

Where Tinker Creek flows under the sycamore log bridge to the tear-shaped island, it is slow and
shallow, fringed thinly in cattail marsh. At this spot an astonishing bloom of life supports vast
breeding populations of insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. On windless summer evenings
I stalk along the creek bank or straddle the sycamore log in absolute stillness, watching for
muskrats. The night I stayed too late I was hunched on the fog staring spellbound at spreading,
reflecting stains of lilac on the water. A cloud in the sky suddenly lighted as if turned on by a
switch; its reflection just as suddenly materialized on the water upstream, flat and floating, so that
I couldn’t see the creek bottom, or life in the water under the cloud. Downstream, away from the
cloud on the water, water turtles as smooth as beans were gliding down with the current in a
series of easy, weightless push-offs, as men bound on the moon. I didn’t know whether to trace
the progress of one turtle I was sure of, risking sticking my face in one of the bridge’s spider
webs made invisible by the gathering dark, or take a chance on seeing the carp, or scan the
mudbank in hope of seeing a muskrat, or follow the last of the swallows who caught at my heart
and trailed after them like streamers as they appeared from directly below, under the log, flying
upstream with their tails forked, so fast.

But shadows spread, and deepened, and stayed. After thousands of years we’re still strangers to
darkness, fearful aliens in an enemy camp with our arms crossed over our chests. I stirred. A land
turtle on the bank, startled, hissed the air from its lungs and withdrew into its shell. An uneasy
pink here, and unfathomable blue there, gave great suggestion of lurking beings. Things were
going on. I couldn’t see whether that sere rustle I heard was a distant rattlesnake, slit-eyed, or a
nearby sparrow kicking in the dry flood debris slung at the foot of a willow. Tremendous action
roiled the water everywhere I looked, big action, inexplicable. A tremor welled up beside a
gaping muskrat burrow in the bank and I caught my breath, but no muskrat appeared. The ripples
continued to fan upstream with a steady, powerful thrust. Night was knitting over my face an
eyeless mask, and I still sat transfixed. A distant airplane, a delta wing out of a nightmare, made a
gliding shadow on the creek’s bottom that looked like a stingray cruising upstream. At once a
black fin slit the pink cloud on the water, shearing it in two. The two halves merged together and
seemed to dissolve before my eyes. Darkness pooled in the cleft of the creek and rose, as water
collects in a well. Untamed, dreaming lights flickered over the sky. I saw hints of hulking and
underwater shadows, two pale splashes out of the water, and round ripples rolling close together
from a blackened center.

At last I stared upstream where only the deepest violet remained of the cloud, a cloud so high its
underbelly still glowed feeble color reflected from a hidden sky lighted in turn by a sun halfway
to China. And out of that violet, a sudden enormous black body arced over the water. I saw only a
cylindrical sleekness. Head and tail, if there was a head and tail, were both submerged in cloud I
saw only one ebony fling, a headlong dive to darkness; then the waters closed, and the lights went
out.

I walked home in a shivering daze, up hill and down. Later I lay open-mouthed in bed, my arms
flung wide at my sides to steady the whirling darkness. At this latitude I’m spinning 836 miles an
hour round the earth’s axis; I often fancy I feel my sweeping fall as a breakneck arc like the dive
of dolphins, and the hollow rushing of wind raises hair on my neck and the side of my face. In
orbit around the sun I’m moving 64,800 miles an hour. The solar system as a whole, like a merry-
go-round unhinged, spins, bobs, and blinks at the speed of 43,200 miles an hour along a course
set east of Hercules. Someone has piped, and we are dancing a tarantella until the sweat pours. I
open my eyes and I see dark, muscled forms curl out of the water, with flapping gills and
flattened eyes. I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars
bowing to deepest stars at the crown of an infinite cone.

“Still,” wrote van Gogh in a letter, “a great deal of light falls on everything.”

If we are blinded by  darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror
results. Peter Freuchen describes the notorious kayak sickness to which Greenland Eskimos are
prone. “The Greenland fjords are peculiar for the spells of completely quiet weather, when there
is not enough wind to blow out a match and the water is like a sheet of glass. The kayak hunter
must sit in his boat without stirring a finger so as not to scare the shy seals away… The sun, low
in the sky, sends a glare into his eyes, and the landscape around moves into the realm of the
unreal. The reflex from the mirror-like water hypnotizes him, he seems to be unable to move, and
all of a sudden it is as if he were floating in a bottomless void, sinking, sinking, and sinking…
Horror-stricken, he tries to stir, to cry out, but he cannot, he is completely paralyzed, he just falls
and falls.” Some hunters are especially cursed with this panic, and bring ruin and sometimes
starvation to their families.

Sometimes here in Virginia at sunset low clouds on the southern or northern horizon are
completely invisible in the lighted sky. I only know one is there because I can see its reflection in
still water. The first time I discovered this mystery I looked from cloud to no-cloud in
bewilderment, checking my bearings over and over, thinking maybe the ark of the covenant was
just passing by south of Dead Man Mountain. Only much later did I read the explanation:
polarized light from the sky is very much weakened by perfection, but the light in clouds isn’t
polarized. So invisible clouds pass among visible clouds, till all slide over the mountains; so a
greater light extinguishes a lesser as though it didn’t exist.

In the great meteor shower of August, the Perseid, I wail all day for the shooting stars I miss.
They’re out there showering down, committing hara-kiri in a flame of fatal attraction, and hissing
perhaps at last into the ocean.

But at dawn what looks like a blue dome clamps down over me like
a lid on a pot. The stars and planets could smash down and I’d never know. Only a piece of ashen
moon occasionally climbs up or down the inside of the dome, and our local star without surcease
explodes on our heads. We have really only that one light, one source for all power, and yet we
must turn away from it by universal decree. Nobody here on the planet seems aware of this
strange, powerful taboo, that we all walk about carefully averting our faces, this way and that, lest
our eyes be blasted forever.

Darkness appalls and light dazzles; the scrap of visible light that doesn’t hurt my eyes hurts my
brain. What I see sets me swaying. Size and distance and the sudden swelling of meanings
confuse me, bowl me over. I straddle the sycamore log bridge over Tinker Creek in the summer. I
look at the lighted creek bottom: snail tracks tunnel the mud in quavering curves. A crayfish
jerks, but by the time I absorb what has happened, he’s gone in a billowing smokescreen of silt. I
look at the water: minnows and shiners. If I’m thinking minnows, a carp will fill my brain till I
scream. I look at the water’s surface: skaters, bubbles, and leaves sliding down. Suddenly, my
own face, reflected, startles me witless. Those snails have been tracking my face! Finally, with a
shuddering wrench of the will, I see clouds, cirrus clouds. I’m dizzy, I fall in. This looking
business is risky.

Once I stood on a humped rock on nearby Purgatory Mountain, watching through binoculars the
great autumn hawk migration below, until I discovered that I was in danger of joining the hawks
on a vertical migration of my own. I was used to binoculars, but not, apparently, to balancing on
humped rocks while looking through them. I staggered. Everything advanced and receded by
turns; the world was full of unexplained foreshortenings and depths. A distant huge tan object, a
hawk the size of an elephant, turned out to be the browned bough of a nearby loblolly pine. I
followed a sharp-shinned hawk against a featureless sky, rotating my head unawares as it flew,
and when I lowered the glass a glimpse of my own looming shoulder sent me staggering. What
prevents men on Palomar from falling, voiceless and blinded, from their tiny, vaulted chairs?

I reel in confusion; I don’t understand what I see. With the naked eye I can see two million light-
years to the Andromeda galaxy. Often I slop some creek water in a jar and when I get home I
dump it in a white china bowl. After the silt settles I return and see tracings of minute snails on
the bottom, a planarian or two winding round the rum of water, roundworms shimmying
frantically, and finally, when my eyes have adjusted to these dimensions, amoebae. At first the
amoebae look like muscae volitantes, those curved moving spots you seem to see in your eyes
when you stare at a distant wall. Then I see the amoebae as drops of water congealed, bluish,
translucent, like chips of sky in the bowl. At length I choose one individual and give myself over
to its idea of an evening. I see it dribble a grainy foot before it on its wet, unfathomable way. Do
its unedited sense impressions include the fierce focus of my eyes? Shall I take it outside and
show it Andromeda, and blow its little endoplasm? I stir the water with a finger, in case it’s
running out of oxygen. Maybe I should get a tropical aquarium with motorized bubblers and
lights, and keep this one for a pet. Yes, it would tell its fissioned descendants, the universe is two
feet by five, and if you listen closely you can head the buzzing music of the spheres.

Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after the other. It’s one of those
nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see. Terror and a
beauty insoluble are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and
small. No culture explains, no bivouac offers real haven or rest. But it could be that we are not
seeing something. Galileo thought comments were an optical illusion. This is fertile ground: since
we are certain that they’re not, we can look at what our scientists have been saying with fresh
hope. What if there are really gleaming, castellated cities hung upside-down over the desert sand?
What limpid lakes and cool date palms have our caravans always passed untried? Until, one by
one, by the blindest of leaps, we light on the road to these places, we must stumble in darkness
and hunger. I turn from the window. I’m blind as a bat, sensing only from every direction the
echo of my own thin cries.

I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Western
surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and
America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts
since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating. Many
doctors had tested their patients’ sense perceptions and ideas of space both before and after the
operations. The vast majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, had, in von Senden’s
opinion, no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless
syllables. A patient “had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness.” Before the operation a
doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with
his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to
the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing.
One patient called lemonade “square” because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked
on the touch of his hands. Of another postoperative patient, the doctor writes, “I have found in her
no notion of size, for example, not even within the narrow limits which she might have
encompassed with the aid of touch. Thus when I asked her to show me how big her mother was,
she did not stretch out her hands, but set her two index-fingers a few inches apart.” Other doctors
reported their patients’ own statements to similar effect. “The room he was in… he knew to be
but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look bigger”; “Those
who are blind from birth… have no real conception of height or distance. A house that is a mile
away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps… The elevator that
whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of
horizontal.”

For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went
through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, bit it
did not meaning anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” Again, “I asked the patient
what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive field of light, in which everything
appeared dull, confused, and in motion. He could not distinguish objects.” Another patient saw
“nothing but a confusion of forms and colours.” When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and
paintings, she asked, “’Why do they put those dark marks all over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark
marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those have shape. If it were not for shadows many things would
look flat.’ ‘Well, that’s how things do look,’ Joan answered. ‘Everything looks flat with dark
patches.’”

But it is the patients’ concepts of space that are most revealing. One patient, according to his
doctor, “practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it
some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a
few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two
and gropes for the boot until he finally gets a hold of it.” “But even at this stage, after three
weeks’ experience of seeing,” von Senden goes on, “’space,’ as he conceives it, ends with visual
space, i.e. with colour-patches that happen to bound his view. He does not yet have the notion
that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present
even though it is not directly seen.”

In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the
sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly
difficult. Soon after his operation a patient “generally bumps into one of these colour-patches and
observes them to be substantial, since they resist him as tactual objects do. In walking about it
also strikes him—or can if he pays attention—that he is continually passing in between the
colours he sees, that he can go past a visual object, that a part of it then steadily disappeares from
view; and that in spite of this, however he twists and turns—whether entering the room from the
door, for example, or returning back to it—he always has a visual space in front of him. Thus he
gradually comes to realize there is also a space behind him, which he does not see.”

The mental effort involved in these reasoning’s proves overwhelming for many patients. It
oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had
previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that
they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or
consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over
objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. “The child can see, but will not
make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficulty be brought to look at objects in
his neighbourhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir him to the necessary
effort.” Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped
for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she
wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never
happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of
total blindness.” A fifteen-year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the
blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it any more; I want to be sent back to the
asylum again. If things aren’t altered I’ll tear my eyes out.”

Some do learn to see, especially the young ones. But it changes their lives. One doctor comments
on “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic
only of those who have never yet seen.” A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old
habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression. While he was blind
he was indifferent to objects unless they were edible; now, “a sifting of values sets in… his
thoughts and wishes are mightily stirred and some few of the patients are thereby led into
dissimulation, envy, theft and fraud.”

On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is
our own vision. To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is “something bright and then
holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out, “it is dark, blue and shiny… It isn’t smooth, it
has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely
be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking
hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’” Some delight in their sight and give
themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor
writes, “The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very
closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly
astonished at the sight.” One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that “Men do not really look
like trees at all,” and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face.
Finally, a twenty-two-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for
two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize the
objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be
seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly
exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”

I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were
ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes,
intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that
parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked
back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at
random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn’t sustain the illusion of flatness. I’ve been
around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn’t
unpeach the peaches. Now can I remember ever having seen without understanding; the color-
patches of infancy are lost. My brain then must have been smooth as any balloon. I’m told I
reached for the moon; many babies do. But the color-patches of infancy swelled as meaning filled
them; they arrayed themselves in solemn ranks down distance which unrolled and stretched
before me like a plain. The moon rocketed away. I live now in a world of shadows that take shape
and distance color, a world where space makes a kind of terrible sense. What gnosticism is this,
and what physics? The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window—silver and green and shape-
shifting blue—is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn.

That humming oblong creature pale as light that stole along the walls of my room at night,
stretching exhilaratingly around the corners, is gone, too, gone the night I ate of the bittersweet
fruit, put two and two together and puckered forever my brain. Martin Buber tells this tale:
“Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who
rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness
before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see
these things any more.’”

Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when
they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the
world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names. The scales would drop from my
eyes; I’d see trees like men walking; I’d run down the road against all orders, hallooing and
leaping.

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes
before my eyes, I simple won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full,
clear sense of the word, unseen.” My eyes alone can’t solve analogy tests using figures, the ones
which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square in a big square, then a
big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words,
describe what I’m seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to
notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of
the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a
strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a
radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a
square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains,
when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank
blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel
knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway
transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between
walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading
the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the
moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an
unscrupulous observer.

It was sunny one evening last summer at Tinker Creek; the sun was low in the sky, upstream. I
was sitting on the sycamore log bridge with the sunset at my back, watching the shiners the size
of minnows who were feeding over the muddy sand in skittery schools. Again and again, one
fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! The sun shot out from its
silver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my
vision just as it disappeared: flash, like a sudden dazzle of the thinnest blade, a sparking over a
dun and olive ground at chance intervals from every direction. Then I noticed white specks, some
sort of pale petals, small, floating from under my feet on the creek’s surface, very slow and
steady. So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw
the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the
linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time.
Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like
light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the
leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.

When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses. I am the man who
watches the baseball game in silence in an empty stadium. I see the game purely; I’m abstracted
and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suited players lope off the green field to their
shadowed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the
commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely
as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of
dedicated struggle; it makes the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West,
under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover
universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be
dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you
must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise
your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing
beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without
utterance.

                           “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and
keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across and hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But
although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this
above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and
adept, a gift and a total surprise. I return from one walk knowing where the killdeer nests in the
field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. I return from the same walk a day later scarcely
knowing my own name. Litanies hum in my ears; my tongue flaps in my mouth Ailinon, alleluia!
I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in
deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and
go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a
sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer
blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards
of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was
walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw
the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing
with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused
and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked
breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.

Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I
was still ringing.

I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was
lifted and struck.

I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes
and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light
roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

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One thought on ““Seeing” by Annie Dillard from “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

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