“The Present” by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard (b. 1945) is an American writer best known for her meditative essays on the natural world. Dillard’s first published book was a collection of poetry, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974). But it was as an essayist that she earned critical acclaim. In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)  she keenly observed her own habitat, distilling the essential mystery of nature in language that is intensely poetic and spiritual, yet without cliché or sentimentality.  Critics hailed the work as an American original in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In the following edited extract from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard ponders on what it means to be “in the moment” based on an epiphany from a road trip.

“It is early March. I am dazed from a long day of interstate driving homeward. I pull in at a gas station in Nowhere, Virgina, north of Lexington. The young boy in charge is offering a free cup of coffee with every gas purchase. We talk in the glass-walled office while my coffee cools enough to drink. He tells me, among other things, that the rival gas station down the road, whose FREE COFFEE sign is visible from the interstate, charges fifteen cents if you want your coffee in a styrofoam cup, as opposed, I guess, to your bare hands.

All the time we talk, the boy’s new beagle puppy is skidding around the office, sniffing impartially at my shoes and at the wire rack of folded maps. The cheerful conversation wakes me, recalls me, not to a normal conversation, but to a kind of energetic readiness. I step outside, followed by the puppy.

I am absolutely alone. There are no other customers. The road is vacant, the interstate is out of sight and earshot. I have hazarded to a new corner of the world, an unknown spot. 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 cloud 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. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy. I watch the mountain.

Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleafed forest and rumpled rock in gilt, in shape shifting patches of glow.

These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes. The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.

This is it, I think, this is it, right now; the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue … The second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque… But at the same second, the second I know I’ve lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming onhis back under my hand.

I had thought, because I had seen the tree with the lights in it, that the great door, by  definition, opens on eternity. Now that I have “patted the puppy” – now that I have experienced the present purely through my senses – I discover that, although the door to the tree with the lights in it was opened from eternity as it were, it nevertheless opened on the real and present cedar. I don’t want to stress this too much. Seeing the tree with the lights in it was an experience vastly different in quality as well as in import from patting the puppy. On that cedar tree shone, however briefly, the steady inward flames of eternity; across the mountain by the gas station raced the familiar flames of the falling sun. But on both occasions I thought, with rising excultation, this is it, this is it; praise the Lord; praise the land. Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.”

Pilgrims at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Harpers Modern Classic , 2013 reprint of the 1974 original.

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