April 25, 2011
I just finished a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, which I picked up after I saw it referenced in two different places within a short period of time. I don’t believe in coincidences; it’s been my experience that when the universe presents things so plainly and repeatedly to me, it’s because they’re going to mean something significant to me.
I requested a copy from the library first, but returned it and went and bought a copy after I loved the first chapter that much. My apartment is small; I have to be selective about buying books.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is written very much in the heritage of Thoreau’s Walden. In 1971, Dillard lived near Tinker Creek, in Virginia, and wrote about finding immense significance in the abundance, intricacy and violence of her ecological neighborhood over the course of a year. It’s a wonderful book to read in the spring.
I was particularly struck by what she says about the human quality of innocence:
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time….It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds persue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurtling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs.
What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.
We’re so accustomed to thinking of innocence as a negative state: as a lack of knowledge, a lack of sexual experience, a lack of maturity, something to be overcome. Even in more desirable terms, “lack of guile or corruption; purity,” in the phrasing of my New Oxford American Dictionary, innocence is defined by absence, by lack. In Dillard’s conception, by contrast, innocence is a positive, nearly palpable state of intensity, a potentiality, a spark, not only the absence of self-consciousness but a presence–devotion–and the capacity for active pursuit of joy.
I wish that we valued innocence more in this way, rather than infantilizing and dismissing it. For example:
A picture of devotion, fittingly, to a man who gave us so much by pursuing it himself.