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A piece of ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’: Spotting Annie Dillard’s ‘tree with the lights in it’

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Photo: Erin Ryan

‘The Tree with the Lights In It’ | Desert Shadow Trail | November 22, 2015 | 10:17 a.m.

My aunt changed my life with two things when I was 14: salt-and-vinegar potato chips and Annie Dillard. She gave me her old paperback copy of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book whose yellowed pages now cling to threads of duct-taped binding.

One of my favorite chapters is about seeing and not seeing, our world and ourselves. Dillard writes of the elusive “green ray” spurting from the moment of sunset; of the air in front of objects spinning with bugs; of noticing a creek in strata, from tiny snails in silt to her own startled reflection. She muses on the newly sighted, people with cataracts who’d been blind from birth suddenly taking in the rush of color and form. Post-op, one girl saw “the tree with the lights in it,” something Dillard hunted for years until one day on a walk, “thinking of nothing at all,” she saw it and was knocked flat.

I hadn’t thought of it or Pilgrim for a long time, but on a cold, windless morning walk with my dog, there it was. A tree like a perfect flame on a match-tip, shooting out light as though the sun soaked into its roots like food coloring into a carnation. Being in the right place and time to catch such simple, breathless beauty is rare. Being in the head space to really see it might be even more so. As Dillard says: “The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it.”

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