Friday, January 2, 2009

Pilgrim at Pomme de Terre River

Once, years ago, I saw red blood cells whip, one by one, through the capillaries in a goldfish's transparent tail. The goldfish was etherized. Its head lay in a wad of wet cotton wool; its tail lay on a tray under a dissecting microscope, one of those wonderful light-gathering microscopes with two eyepieces like a stereoscope in which the world's fragments--even the skin on my finger--look brilliant with myriads of colored lights, and as deep as any alpine landscape. The red blood cells in the goldfish's tail streamed and coursed through narrow channels invisible save for glistening threads of thickness in the general translucency. They never wavered or slowed or ceased flowing, like the creek itself; they streamed redly around, up, and on, one by one, more, and more, without end....Those red blood cells are coursing in Ellery's tail now, too, in just that way, and through his mouth and eyes as well, and through mine. I've never forgotten the sight of those cells; I think of it when I see the fish in his bowl; I think of it lying in bed at night, imagining that if I concentrate enough I might be able to feel in my fingers' capillaries the small knockings and flow of those circular dots, like a string of beads drawn through my hand.

--Annie Dillard
A good friend recently lent me a book by Annie Dillard called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s an excellent read, full of contemplations about life, biology, nature, existence, spirituality, and religion. It’s pretty heavy stuff, too: I couldn’t read more than a chapter at the time without pausing to rest, absorb, and contemplate. I understood most of the surface stuff, but I’m sure it will take another reading (or more!) to fully appreciate and comprehend the complexities of Dillard’s writing.

Her observations are profound. Her language is eloquent. I’m in awe of the beauty of her writing. Reading the book, I was getting the vibe of a younger woman who has spent a fair amount of time in isolation. Looking up Dillard’s biography, I learned that this was exactly the case. She was only 28 when Pilgrim was published. I was humbled.

Oddly enough, before I had even heard of the book I had written a blog post describing my fascination with moss sporophytes. At the time I couldn’t stop marveling at the intricacy and efficiency of such structures. Topics such as these are exactly what Dillard writes about. I noticed the similarity immediately, and quite frankly was a bit embarrassed. I felt like a cheap impersonator—I knew that my words could never match hers. I’m a decent writer and a deep thinker (sometimes), but I can’t hope to compare to someone so great.

But then again, why should I? I’ll do my owning thinking, I decided, and I’ll write what I know, because what else can I do? I continued with the descriptions of the world around not in imitation, but because those are the things on my mind right now. Let me search on my own. It’s not a competition. I’ll find my own voice and my own path and I’ll make my own discoveries.

See, Dillard and I have quite a bit in common, both in the way we were raised and in the ways we choose to look at the world. She had her Tinker Creek, and I have my Pomme de Terre River. I felt a deep connection and personal involvement with the book, almost as though it were written exclusively for my eyes. I was able to pick up on certain details and nuances that most people would miss—not because I’m so excellent, but because I’ve had a lot of the same background as the author. How many other people have seen the red blood cells flowing in the capillaries of a goldfish’s tail, or watched the movement of chloroplasts in an elodea leaf cell? I could even relate to the long descriptions of plant root hairs, mychorrizal fungi, and the long lists of fruit types (achene, samara, drupe…). Had I not taken that Botany class this past semester or been exposed to Anatomy and Physiology in high school, I would have missed all of those experiences and missed the true appreciation of Dillard’s musings.

[Side note: So what else do I miss? Experience is key, and if we can’t relate something new to something we already know, I’m sure we miss out on comprehension, appreciation, and knowledge. That’s a real shame. We should all work harder to expose ourselves to more and more things so we can learn and grow. Is it too late to make a New Year’s resolution?]

So let me go out and observe. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. I’ve got lots of exploring and lots of living to do.

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