Birding with Annie Dillard

This is not merely wishful thinking.

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.

This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.

It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… 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…

I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:

Oriole

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…

Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:

RWBB

How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.

I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:

Pelican in serenity

Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:

Pelican Flying Away

And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:

Distant finding

As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!

GB Fly away

GBH Fly 2

It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.

Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.

Yes, a better camera.

 

***

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Birding with Annie Dillard”

  1. This resonates so well with me. Every word. I think I must read Dillard now. Oh, so beautiful, these photos. I’ve never seen an oriole. And I’m glad you saw and captured the heron in flight — that isn’t easy. Now you see it, now you don’t!

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    1. I was a Dillard fan and had bought all her books when I was younger. They still sit on my shelf. You’ll love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The opening is about her exp. with her cat, which makes me think of the ‘Marmelade Gypsy’. 🙂

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  2. I have been sitting on a book by Dillard for a few yers. Time to pull it out! I love these posts and your photos. You bring the moment with you.

    The red wing blackbirds were a sign of spring when I was growing up. Before they buried the wetland for yet another house, the redwing blackbirds would be singing while I waited for the school bus, only a few yards away. They were accustomed to the traffic and would sing and play in spite of the rowdy kids standing at the corner of their territory. The other side of the road was a farm and the river just beyond that. I took for granted the close up look at these normally shy birds. I’ve seen only a handful since.

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    1. That’s in ON? Good to know the Red-winged Blackbirds are everywhere in N. America such that we can share our experiences relating to them. Unlike, say, the Cardinal, which we don’t have here in Alberta, and a bird which I haven’t even seen but is so common in Eastern N. America!

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      1. Yes! Southern Ontario. And I saw one here in the mountains just a few weeks ago. No wetlands nearby, just a creek and only saw him once! Cardinals are everywhere here. I have three pairs at my feeder most days. You have some interesting birds there though. Something I thought was a grey jay, but isn’t.

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        1. We have large birds like in the post, Herons and Pelicans, also ducks and geese, lots of them. But for Song Birds, which are my faves, we don’t have so many as the southern part where you are. And not as colorful as those in the East coast.

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  3. Wonderful captures of that Great Blue Heron!! Thank you for the link to the Cinnamon Teal birding male. I do think that is what I saw! Happy weekend to you.

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    1. C-Marie,

      I think you’ll enjoy Dillard’s writing, not only Tinker Creek. But of course, this is her Pulitzer Prize winner and her insights and spiritual connections aren’t so easy to come by nowadays.

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  4. As you know, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book I love. I re-read it annually at least, and often dip into it. It so rich and insight-filled, and not only when it comes to seeing, and birds. Her chapter on stalking is an equal delight, as are her ruminations on the physicists.

    I recently had one of those “now you don’t see it,, now you do” experiences with a lizard. In more than seventy years on this earth I’d never seen or imagined anything like this.

    Probably my favorite quotation from the entire book is this:

    There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

    I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

    Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

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    1. I’m impressed to learn that you re-read the book annually. You’re right in saying it’s “so rich and insight-filled”. This chapter, “Seeing”, is the only one with the focus on birds. I’d wish she’ll say more about them in other chapters too. But I learn a lot from her observations of all living beings in nature. This time around, I’m appreciating the spiritual allusions and insights. Have to say, this sort of writing is a rarity nowadays. If you know of any contemporary Annie Dillard, do let me know. We need her to interpret our times. Thanks for sharing your fave quotation. I can see why you’d want to read it again and again.

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