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"Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard: Literary Analysis and Viewpoint Chapter 2: "Seeing"

Background of Author and Ideas

American author and poet, Annie Dillard (1945- present), amalgamates complex ideas about nature and sight in her 1974 book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. My essay's viewpoint builds on ideas from the second chapter, "Seeing". Dillard states as her whole idea about sight, basically how I view it, is to appreciate the natural world and delve into the meaning and understanding of our world and life through vision.

Dillard's Approach

“Seeing”, the second chapter from Annie Dillard's book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, shows a new way of not only seeing, but thinking about the world in relation to how humans perceive it. In this mission to explicate on how people see the world, Dillard shows how light and dark affect sight, and even how the mind processes sight. Mostly, Dillard centers on explaining the processes of sight in various ways. The natural surroundings Dillard speaks of at Tinker Creek help to narrate certain ideas about vision that many miss. Overall, Dillard's ideas encompass the meaning of sight, and of life. That is, Dillard suggests that the things we observe define our lives, helping us live fully, look deeper, and avoid superficiality.

Free Pennies

Dillard explains her childhood habit, comparing it to the way in which people see. She explains that when younger, she would hide a penny in a sidewalk, thereafter drawing arrows leading to it for a stranger to find (Dillard 111). Later, she states, about the sights of birds, “These appearances catch at my throat; they are the free gifts, the bright coppers at the roots of trees” (Dillard 112). Dillard is saying that the appearances of nature are like the pennies: free gifts to appreciate, no matter how small or closely one has to look. Dillard's meaning of happiness appears to be based on what one sees, or how one sees, “...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” (Dillard 112). Not observing closely would mean blocking oneself from joy, according to Dillard. There is, however, more to seeing than just happiness, and that is how to understand the world.

The "Artificial Obvious"

How one sees is the most complex center of Dillard's essay. Her introduction to this aspect is her idea of the “artificial obvious”. She states,

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. (Dillard 114)

Dillard's version of “the artificial obvious”, is that it is the opposite of a personal idea of some generally accepted expectancy of how something will look, take place, act, etc., in other words, the obvious. In observing as outside of what is obvious, or “the artificial obvious”, one will discover more in front of them, yielding greater rewards, greater enjoyment.

Too Much Dark, Too Much Light

Dillard's ideas of the effects of light and dark on sight are enormous, the largest effect being, “If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light” (Dillard 116). In Peter Freuchen's explanation of kayak sickness Dillard uses, in which Greenland Eskimos on still water's reflection of the low sun seem to sink in a bottomless space, shows that too much light in a certain way can terrify just as much as the dark (Dillard116- 117). Dark is frightening in that it holds capabilities of anxiety inducing images of the imagination’s unwise wanderings of the unknown. As Dillard states, “Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls…Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind” (Dillard 115). This shows that since human’s vision is impaired by darkness, as with the opposing possibility of light’s shocking blinding, incites trepidation rooted in skewed understanding of the surroundings cloaked in unbalanced values, therefore temporarily erasing one’s ground in their appropriate, peaceful reality. Dillard uses the phrases of “darkness whispering” and the “unseen appalling”. I agree that darkness whispers, however, the whispering can turn into shouting; the shouting turns darkness into a source of appalling images because of the lack of sight and the complexity of the imagination’s power. It is for this reason light and dark are both best kept in moderation as are many other things in this world we inhabit, one being that of imagination.

Blindness and Perception

Marius von Senden's book, Space and Sight, offers Dillard insight into how the blind see after their vision is restored from cataract surgery (Dillard 118- 119). In this restoration of sight the patients view the world as “color patches”, areas of color with no depth whatsoever (Dillard 120). When Dillard remains wary of her inability to keep an illusion of flatness in her vision, she decides that people who have always had their sight cannot reverse their understanding of how shadows reveal distance and space (Dillard 121). I disagree with Dillard's claim of how “color patches” show the world how it really exists, “For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning ...” (Dillard 119). In understanding distance and space through light and shadow, I view, is actually observing the world as it is. To say that seeing the world as is through “color patches” is seeing reality would be false, since the real world is comprised of tactile objects and measurable distances. Perhaps the way Dillard views reality is different, in which seeing without understanding space is sight that is true because of lack of outside influence on how to understand what one sees. Nonetheless, reality is different than sight. Sight is only a template into how distance and space can be understood.

Our Definition of Reality

Since sight is only a template, the other senses form a window into discovering reality. But why do so many doubt sight? Why not doubt the other so-called peremptory senses we trust so dearly? If we do not know exactly what we are looking at, how can we trust what we hear or feel? Who has a say in that? Seemingly, we all hold common beliefs when reality’s subjects are tested. How can anyone dictate reality? One could sculpt a clay hand and call it a hand or draw a drum and call it a drum, but that would be false; these items are not a hand and drum in the widely accepted viewpoint of reality’s definition. They are earth toned dirt-like substance resembling a hand and a mere image of percussion.

Therefore, the way to see truly would be to formulate an idea, a belief of reality with which an individual finds peace. It is impossible to hold peace if one doubts everything seen, felt, known to them. It would be like living in a white windowless room all of life, voices chanting who or what to believe. That is why so many of us have held beliefs about sight to ground ourselves in reality; we have theorized how to see in order to make understanding of our surroundings. This understanding grants happiness, therefore even closer observation grants pure elation. The question is what are we observing that grants elation? The point being that elation certainly does not come from observing a gruesome subject, although “gruesomeness” may be argued according to the viewer’s nerves or perception. And keeping, once again, ideas that ground us in reality, that grant peace, help us to avoid insanity. So how shall one approach one’s own sight? One can doubt everything and go insane, or believe what they find harmony with. The latter proves more suitable to living. There needs to be a balance, as Dillard showed with darkness and light. Everything needs balance; inclusion of unneeded chaos in one’s life destroys purpose.

"Two Ways of Seeing"

Two ways of seeing, Dillard explains, makes a difference whether or not one unlocks the “secret of seeing”. The first way, Dillard puts, “When I see this way, I analyze and pry” (Dillard 122). The second way to see, Dillard explicates, “But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied” (Dillard 122). The difference of seeing the first way and the second way is the first way is much too tedious. Trying too hard to see actually makes it more difficult to see, as in Dillard’s previous mention of the “artificial obvious”. People have to not so much expect the unexpected, but open their mind to the expected and unexpected. The second way of seeing, Dillard further explains:

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. (Dillard 123)

The second way of seeing, therefore, is to ignore analyzing. The “muddy river” of the mind, as Dillard calls it, is this analytical side to all of us, the phase of the mind that interferes with, that hinders chances to seeing truly. The “secret of seeing” is to see truly. What is seeing truly? It is a way of seeing that grabs every minuscule sliver of peace in this world that close, quiet observation offers, delving into this “realm of the real” and perceiving reality in a harmonious manner.

Dillard's Point of it All, According to Me

In conclusion, Dillard's essay shows that sight depends on what people are accustom to. Not only does sight depend on this, but also on what people are willing to learn and not put effort into, but let them self tap into. For Dillard, seeing is a very deep process compared to a free gift as the penny in the sidewalk. We all have only a mortal’s amount of time on this giant blue orb, so seeing as Dillard dissects this process seems advantageous. One may become more appreciative of sight when understanding the complex processes Dillard has put forth, to be the “specialist”, and open up the enjoyment in capturing every nuance of the Earth.


Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Rpt. in

Making Sense: Essays on Art, Science, and Culture. Boston. Patricia A. Coryell,

2006. Print.

Stahlman Elliott, Sandra, “Annie Dillard: Biography”, Rob Anderson, n.d.

Web. 05 Feb. 2012.


not John Ryan on April 30, 2018:

rt Jacob this is trash, read it four times still dont understand what on earth it was talking about.