The Riddle of the Trees: A Paean for the Natural World

Forest - Rooted. Artist: Salli HipkissWriter and artist Salli Hipkiss shares an extract from her novel’s manuscript — a glimpse into the heart of the story and its forest, and further into the development of character, meaning and writing for the ‘We Generation’.


2,560 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes 


In her first post in this two-part series, My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis, Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write The Riddle of the Trees as a creative work on climate change.

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The Riddle of the Trees

Jeanie left the light and shimmer of the hilltop views behind her. The track curved northwest and soon she was enveloped in the cool, cushioning shade of the forest. Among the trees the sharpness of the light and the edgy whine of insect-sounds softened into a diffused hum.  She followed the track through the Treefarm until she reached a junction. She knew the way well.  Her route home took the neatly-kept right-hand track south through the Treefarm towards the town, while on the left two crumbling stone pillars were all that remained of an ancient gateway, and an overgrown path led into the heart of the old-growth forest: the wild place known as the Olgro.

     The evening humidity was making her breathless and she stopped at the gateway, leaning her bike against one pillar.  A large, moss-covered stone had long since fallen from the gateway making an impromptu seat. She sat down, pulling a bottle of water from her rucksack.  While she drank she looked back into the Treefarm. The rows of managed pines and beeches stretched sedately into the distance. The trees seemed cool, quiet and orderly; but also quiet in terms of diversity, of life, of spirit.  Jeanie turned to look through the gateway into the Olgro.  Sitting here at the junction, the contrast between the two parts of the forest could hardly have been greater.

     Have you ever been to an Olgro? An old-growth forest? A truly ancient old forest?  A forest that has never been cut or cleared: where for thousands of years there have been trees at various stages of growing up, growing old, dying, or slowly sinking back into the earth to become nurseries for new sapling trees?

     Have you been to a forest where the numbers of different species of plants and animals and insects and fungi are so great that new species are constantly being discovered even after centuries of scientific study?  Where the different life forms have lived alongside one another for so long that insects have begun to look like flowers and flowers like the insects that feed from them?  Where the contrasting scents of honeysuckle, damp moss, rotting wood, tang of fox, and a metallic mix of ozone and ore, constantly assault and allay your senses in equal measures? 

     Have you stood in a forest with your ears full with the fizz and hum of insect flight, the creak and rustle of giant trees in endless movement, and the staccato chatter of numerous birds?  Where before long you can’t help but find yourself falling back into the steps of an ancient dance that has been going on, unbroken, for millions of years? 

     Jeanie let her eyes wander, flickering between the trees, plants and flowers on the other side of the gateway: seeing them tumbling over one another, winding around one another, or even growing up through one another.  She measured trees supporting ivies taller than the tree itself; lianas draping themselves between branches; ferns and epiphytes growing in the crooks of trunks high above the moss-dampened forest floor. It looked chaotic but Jeanie knew from Gramps that it represented a harmony of the highest order.   

     Or it had done… Jeanie scanned the rich texture of the forest again, her eyes narrowing. As she looked more carefully she felt her chest tighten and something shift beneath her ribs. Something was wrong.  Her heart began to thump, sounding a warning. Gramps was right. The trees had changed.  She closed her eyes to listen to the subtle pulse of the forest, searching for an explanation or even an adequate description. But she couldn’t find one, just a strong intuition that all was not as it should be.  Opening her eyes, thoughts began to form. On many trees the leaves had a certain transparency.  A frailty.  A ghostliness even.

     Suddenly she knew what this was.  It was what Gramps had feared the most.  This was Disintegration.

(Excerpt from The Riddle of the Trees, © Salli Hipkiss 2008. Latest edition 2017. As yet unpublished. All rights reserved.)

***

Forest - 'Rooted' Acrylic and pastel on canvas. Image: Salli Hipkiss
‘Rooted’ Acrylic and pastel on canvas
Image: Salli Hipkiss © 2000
www.sallihipkiss.com

Love for the natural world

Following on from my previous post about the writing of my manuscript for the young adult audience, I was encouraged by ClimateCultures to share an excerpt from the story. After deliberating, I decided upon the above passage from near the beginning of the book. I could have ‘cut to the chase’ (for there is a chase of sorts in the story!), but for a story like The Riddle of the Trees it feels more appropriate to give a glimpse into the heart of the story. 

In The Guardian in 2015, Patrick Barkham, quoting from Matthew Oates’ book In Pursuit of Butterflies, wrote:

‘Environmentalists desperately need poets and storytellers, Oates contends, because ultimately conservation is concerned with “mending the relationship between people and Nature”. Science may clarify priorities “but the whole show is essentially about Love”.’

This love for the natural world is what motivates me to create work to inspire change, and it is what motivates several of the characters in the story. It is also a reason for creating a novel as a vehicle for exploring environmental issues. This is an art form that allows for a broad expression of emotion: one that can take on love and joy, and also despair, frustration, anger, animosity and other emotions that difficult challenges like climate change can invoke. 

I have always been interested in stories that follow several characters with similar, if not equal, weight, and in writing The Riddle of the Trees I gave myself this challenge. Quickly, within a few chapters, the book establishes that we are following not one, or even two, protagonists but several, forming a sort of holistic composite character. In creative work I like messages that run deeply, like the grain through wood, acting at the structural as well as superficial levels, and in my story there is a deeper meaning behind having a number of viewpoints, which is to illustrate this idea of holism: that we need diverse talents and insights from various quarters in order to ‘crack the codes’ to solve many of the world’s environmental and other problems.

Forest — a riddle for the many

At the geographical centre of the story are Jeanie, a lonely teenage girl, and Gramps, her forest keeper grandfather, who separately realise that a serious, mysterious ailment has befallen their beloved forest. In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that most stories fit into one of seven structures. At first encounter The Riddle of the Trees might appear to follow the structure of a Quest, one of the seven plots Booker listed. The fierce love Jeanie and Gramps feel for the forest certainly leads them to undertake a quest to save the trees. However their quest is just one aspect of the story, and actually, if pushed, the plot better resembles a Comedy, not in the sense of a humorous piece, but a comedy in the Greek tradition, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in the spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. As the title suggests, The Riddle of the Trees is threaded through with riddles, muddles and misunderstandings that need a combination of wisdom, wit, courage – and love – from a number of characters to reach a resolution. 

Forest - Puck's Glen, Scotland. Photograph: Salli Hipkiss
Puck’s Glen, Scotland.
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2006
www.sallihipkiss.com

Thus there isn’t one main ‘celebrity character’. The driving forces are care and compassion, even from the apparent antagonist who rather than being evil is instead mostly misguided and attempting to solve the forest’s disease and its potentially escalating problems by exercising greater and greater control, but at the expense of other freedoms. His power, his inflexibility, and his inability to listen to others’ advice make him dangerous. But he is not evil. 

This distinction was important to me. When I first started drafting the story I had a wonderful discussion with a Japanese friend about the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the sort of films that the house then created. My friend pointed out how the seemingly ‘bad’ characters in Studio Ghibli films were not ‘beaten’ by the good characters as they might be in a Hollywood movie, but instead underwent some process of transformation during which their frightening or dangerous power was dissipated. Often this was through their becoming properly understood where they weren’t before. For example, in Spirited Away, a witch figure returns to being a benign old lady, and a raging river spirit calms to a benevolent one when his polluted water is cleaned and he is called by his rightful name. This process of transformation and the possibility for redemption resonated with me and are further grains that run through the heart of the story. 

The Riddle of the Trees is a story for young people about challenging the status quo, about following one’s own path and passions and conscience, and about forming friendships that transcend difference and constraint.

Reading again through the excerpt I have chosen above, I find myself bringing to mind the poem The Road Not Taken, published in 1916 by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Rootedness

Jeanie in the story starts as ‘one traveller’ in another sense: she is lonely, and soon also carrying a burden of responsibility to solve a difficult mystery. However through the course of the story she and a number of other characters become newly connected and collectively are then able to solve some difficult problems. Although the novel is set in a future where mobile phones and social media are no longer ubiquitous, because young people live in a world dominated by these forces now I feel they will recognise the strong impulse to connect and form community — including globally — that lies at the heart of the book.

Old Road, Yorkshire Dales<br /> Photograph: Salli Hipkiss
Old Road, Yorkshire Dales
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2009
www.sallihipkiss.com

Perhaps the ethos of self-reliance and independence that Robert Frost was championing in his poem is no longer the prevailing ethos of the younger generation today. Reflecting on his famous ending line “… I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference” it seems notable to me that the lines imply the difference made to one life only: the speaker’s own. 

Instead, young people today, when asked what they want to achieve in life, will often answer: “I want to make a difference” meaning a difference in society, environmentally or in other altruistic ways. The millennial generation has been named the ‘We Generation’. They are much more aware than previous generations that in order to thrive as a species, as a whole planetary ecosystem, and also as individuals, we need to think in terms of interdependence rather than independence. This ‘We’ rather than just ‘Me’ way of thinking gives me hope for the future.

In Sharon Blackie’s thought-provoking 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie comes to a similar conclusion about the need for a change from the prevailing myth of many generations, outlined clearly by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1990 book The Hero’s Journey. She writes:

“Campbell’s Hero’s Journey… is entirely focused on an individual’s spiritual growth and personal transformation – the process which Jung called ‘individuation’. But the journey we need to make today is one which rips us out of the confined spaces of our own heads and plants us firmly back in the world where we belong, rooted and ready to rise… We are not separate from this earth; we are a part of it, whether we feel it fully in our bodies yet or not… The Heroine’s Journey we need to make today is, above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey.”

In The Riddle of the Trees Jeanie and her various companions’ separate and collective journeys all lead to a common mission: to save the forest and restore harmony. To attempt this, all need to tap, like roots, into the groundwater of their own talents and passions and to offer them to the whole. Blackie continues:

“…And if we rise up rooted, like trees… well then, women might indeed not only save ourselves, but the world.”

In another wonderful book from 2015 The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy affirms:

“We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about [nature], which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”

For my part, I would be delighted if The Riddle of the Trees helped inspire a stronger feeling of rootedness, of connection with the natural world, an appreciation of its awe-inspiring beauty and ability to bring joy, and of what we stand to lose if we don’t care for what we have, while also engaging young people in a deliciously complicated but very heartfelt adventure story along the way. 


Find out more

Our first post from Salli Hipkiss, in which she wrote about the inspiration behind her writing The Riddle of the Trees, was My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis. And Salli’s recent poemModest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake

Patrick Barkham’s quotation from Matthew Oates is in his review of three books on butterflies; Rainbow Dust; The Moth Snowstorm; and In Pursuit of Butterflies review – three tributes to the humble Lepidoptera, published in The Guardian (16/7/15).

You can find out more about Sharon Blackie’s work, including her 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, at www.sharonblackie.net And you can download a sample chapter from her publisher, September Publishing.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) is published by Bloomsbury, and Wikipedia has a brief summary

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey was first published in 1990, with a revised edition published by New World Library in 2003. 

The full text of Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, is available at Poem Hunter, where you can also hear a recording of the poem.

Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm one of the three books reviewed in the Patrick Barkham article mentioned above – was published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton. 

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was released by Studio Ghibli in 2001. In a 15th-anniversary review at Vice (20/7/16), Hannah Ewans discusses The Meaning of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’, the Best Animated Film of All Time.

Salli Hipkiss
Salli Hipkiss
A writer, artist and educator, producing picture books, a novel and songs, with a background teaching and facilitating arts and sustainability with schools and communities.
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My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis

The Riddle of the TreesPoet and artist Salli Hipkiss, in the first of two posts, reflects on how she came to understand the urgent challenges of climate change, and decided to write The Riddle of the Trees, a novel supporting positive change.


1,320 words: estimated reading time 5.5 minutes 


It all began in 1999 with ‘A Novel Idea’. Not the idea for a book, but a wonderful bookshop of the same name on a dusty peninsular of the East African town of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Living there as a teacher, a weekend treat was to head to ‘A Novel Idea’ where highly contemporary international new books appeared as if magically in a town where other correspondence from the rest of the world often failed to arrive. One particular Saturday a book found its way into my hands, as ‘just the right book’ seems to do from time to time. It was The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett.

I read it in a couple of power-rationing interrupted evenings (the irony was not lost on me) and came away knowing I had been introduced to possibly the most serious issue of our time, and one that would become a greater and greater problem and international focus over years to come. The issue in question was, of course, climate change. My immediate action was to apply for a new additional post at the school where I worked, aiming to become ‘Leader for the Environment’. I was given the post and for two years, in addition to my art teaching duties, I was the Environmental Education coordinator for the secondary school. Over this time I tried to introduce some of the urgency I had sensed through the book, including creating a whole school Environmental Charter.

A meaningful contribution

Jump to September 2006. I had left both Tanzania and full-time teaching in 2002 with the intention to retrain and hopefully carve out a new career in one of my other great passions: music, alongside my arts and sustainability commitments. I was living in Cambridge in the UK as a self-employed arts and sustainability practitioner and educator when An Inconvenient Truth hit the cinemas.

Having read The Carbon War I was very aware of Al Gore and his climate change advocacy work, but most people I knew at that time saw him solely as the former US presidential candidate. An Inconvenient Truth changed all that. I went to see the film three times at the cinema and bought the DVD for friends. My passion was renewed and I wondered once again how I could contribute meaningfully to the conversation around climate change and help to turn things around for the better.

Teacher training workshop with Conservation Society of Sierra Leone in Kenema, Sierra Leone, 2006. Photo: Salli Hipkiss
Teacher training workshop with Conservation Society of Sierra Leone in Kenema, Sierra Leone, 2006.
Photo: Salli Hipkiss © 2018 www.sallihipkiss.com

Later that month an opportunity arose to travel to Sierra Leone to help with forest conservation education and my time there helped focus my thoughts. The idea began to form that my personal contribution to the climate change solution could be to write a book that inspired dialogue and change: after all, a book and a bookshop had been my introduction to the issue. Straight away I knew it would be a book for young people, and that the science would be put across through the medium of a magical story. I started to make notes and sketches and by the time I came back from Sierra Leone I had made a firm commitment to write the story.

Vital threads

The advice generally given to writers is to “write what you know”. Although my musical ambitions had suffered many setbacks, music remained a source of great joy and wisdom in my life, and as the idea to write a novel took shape I knew music would be one vital thread through the story. The imperative to help with the climate change challenge formed the other.

I began to read more widely about carbon sequestration and carbon trading and gradually the story began to take shape. It was to be set in a future when ‘carbon balance’ has been achieved through widespread reforestation. A new crisis would then emerge when a mysterious disease befalls one such forest and threatens the others, and therefore puts the carbon balance into peril and the threat of climate change looms again.

My deeper ecological message was to illustrate that in planning for widespread increased sequestration as one solution it is vital that we also keep sight of the need to protect biodiversity and that a healthy planet will only prevail if we seek health on all levels. The other deeper message was that this may only come about if we put aside our cultural differences and work together as one humanity. 

The Riddle of the Trees

Characters appeared next: a lonely teenage girl, a shy teenage boy, a Forest Keeper grandfather who is too often absent due to his commitment to the forest, international musicians who carry the sounds of nature and the seeds of culture from all quarters of the world within their music. Other key characters are a heavy-handed Ealdorman who tries to save the forest by imposing greater and greater restrictions, and a reclusive artist living in the forest who provides intuitive wisdom born of her close connection with and immersion in nature. Then the settings emerged: a forest by the sea, a former palace turned cultural centre, a portside town, and a mysterious cottage in the woods with a magical tower and observatory.

I started to write, sitting at a corner desk in my one-bedroom maisonette with a cherry tree just outside the window, or in one of the many cafes in and around Cambridge.

Lino cut illustration for The Riddle of the Trees. Image: Salli Hipkiss
Lino cut illustration for The Riddle of the Trees
Image: Salli Hipkiss © 2018
www.sallihipkiss.com

In 2007 I embarked on a Masters degree in Children’s Book Illustration, envisaging, amongst other outcomes, a beautifully illustrated chapter book of my story, or even an interactive ebook with moving illustrations and strains of music at key moments. The course turned out not to be the right place to nurture the story, and a year in I took a break and a part-time job in a shop aptly named ‘One World is Enough’.

I continued to write. Then after focusing on finishing the MA in 2010, I completed the first draft of the story and The Riddle of the Trees was born. 

Since then the story has undergone numerous revisions and attempts at publication while I have also been raising a family. Now, almost twenty years after first reading The Carbon War I feel inspired once again to try to get the story out into the wider world where I hope it will inspire young people and others to care more deeply about climate and biodiversity issues and to take individual and collective action. Perhaps when this happens we will be one small step closer to achieving not only carbon balance but also ‘Carbon Peace’.

***

Salli’s second post in this series is The Riddle of the Trees: A Paean for the Natural World. And her recent poem, Modest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take —  is published at Finding Blake


Find out more

Jeremy Leggett’s The Carbon War is no longer in print but you can find second-hand copies online, and you can read a download of his follow up book, The Winning of the Carbon War at JeremyLeggett.net 

In An Inconvenient Truth, (2006) by Davis Guggenheim, the film follows former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore on the lecture circuit, raising public awareness of the dangers of global warming. Grist has an interesting behind-the-scenes at how the film came about, An oral history of An Inconvenient Truth

The 2017 ‘sequel’ film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Gore as he speaks with scientists and leaders, and is featured in this Scientific American (28/7/17) article, Al Gore Returns with an Ever-More Inconvenient Truth.

Salli Hipkiss
Salli Hipkiss
A writer, artist and educator, producing picture books, a novel and songs, with a background teaching and facilitating arts and sustainability with schools and communities.
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In the Path of Its Beam

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Annie Dillard’s 1974 wonder-filled book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A classic, it nonetheless resists easy classification and explores, in equal measure, horror and beauty in nature: fixing both with Dillard’s hallmark unblinking stare.


2,900 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes 


A copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek goes to Veronica Sekules for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is — was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account — a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley — the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting — how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' cover
‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Tinker creek: two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later — looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” — Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it around for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the schoolyard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror — and both in abundance — is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow — “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” — is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and 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.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Artist: Anna Maria Johnson
Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than 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.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”


Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. In her illustrated essay, A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, she offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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The Gift of the Goddess Tree

Artist Jennifer Leach shares another story she performed as part of Festival of the Dark’s micro-festival Dazzle. It’s a tale of transformation: stretching imagination, shifting vision as key to waking us up. What if the world were other?


790 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes  


Transformation: Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life - from the 1847 English translation of the Prose Edda, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge<br /> Image: Public domain
Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life – from the 1847 English translation of the Prose Edda, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge
Image: Public domain
Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

Last Thursday I went to visit my great 84-year old friend Anne Yarwood. For those of you who know RISC — the Reading International Solidarity Centre — she was the visionary who conceived it and brought it into being. After a cup of tea, we walked slowly out into her beautiful garden and sat in a small roofless shelter she calls The Lighthouse. We sat in amiable silence. And she then pointed to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and said, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I smiled and nodded and we sat there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity there, under the Earth.

As we sat so, I began to undergo a strange transformation. It is hard to put into words exactly what happened. A transmogrification, a molten transformation, a morphing of being and consciousness. In some manner not understood, I was within the tree, with a discombobulating sense of slightness. Glancing over, I could see that it was so too for Anne. What we had become I do not know. Witchety grubs, tree fleas, I am still unsure. And this is what then happened. In the subtlest way possible, both our surroundings and ourselves began to change. In some way, we were carried down within the heartwood of the tree, moving from the Upperland into the Netherworld beneath the soil. It was a gradual process, with the light around us dimming first into gloaming, and then into darkness; the quality of the darkness intensifying until it began to emerge as an alternative way of seeing. Our power of vision slipped incrementally from the organ of the eyes to that of the nose; we began to perceive through smell. As we descended, the darkness crystallized into the pungent scent of loam. Dim pictures formed in our nasal passages. Pictures of roots binding one with the other, spreading infinitely as a vast heaven; fungus-studded caverns hollowing with the peaty brooks that licked the leaf-moulded netherworld. Shadowy movements of fellow creatures and organisms waving, shaking, scuttling, padding. An interchange of whistling, calling, creaking, clicking; the groaning of taproots scraping anchor in the depths, the low whistle of insect calling water, the trickling flick of water calling beetle. The bark of a badger, the drumbeating rhythm of a mole at work. As we tunnelled further and further more damply downwards, the scraping against soil shaft of our own bodies crackled and cracked, breaking back and across our vibratory receptors.

Time was measured in the crawling pace of our carapaces, days by vivid vibrations, nights by a gentle hum. All we were, Anne and I, were sensations. No thought. No memory. No perception. No projection. No wondering what existed beyond our very own skins. No wondering what existed within our very own skins. No wondering what might exist beyond the rhizome roof that marked the boundary of our world. No wondering even what might be the boundary of our world. We simply were. Anne and I. Some sort of witchety grubs in a darkness dappled world of root and leafmould sensation.

How the experience ended, again neither of us can be sure. We were sitting, in amiable silence, in the small roofless shelter Anne calls the Lighthouse. And she was pointing to the vast forked tree under which we sat, and was saying, ‘I see her as the Earth Goddess. Those are her legs. Her head is under the soil.’ I was smiling and nodding and we were sitting there imagining what life must be like for that tree deity, under the Earth.

Yet the sun was lower, the air cooler, with a hint of rain. We made our way slowly back towards the house. In companionable silence.


Find out more

Jennifer’s first story for ClimateCultures was What the Bee Sees. You can explore the Festival of the Dark, the Celtic cycle of the year and more at Outrider Anthems.

Jennifer will be participating in La Liberté d’Expression art exhibition at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley, 19th – 25th April, where she will also be storytelling with arch-storyteller Dr Anne Latto.

You can visit the Reading International Solidarity Centre and its  excellent Global Cafe at 35-39 London St, Reading RG1 4PS

Jennifer Leach
Jennifer Leach
A poet, writer, performer and storyteller whose wild work, forged in the fantastical reaches of deep imagination, brings to life new stories for our strange times.
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