Forward to next post: Playing for Change redux
Lately, I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’m still only about halfway through, but it’s a fascinating and complicated set of essays. I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize.
It’s set in the mountains, and though they’re different mountains than the ones where I spent some important parts of my childhood, I feel very much at home in the landscape. One reason is Dillard’s relationship with water. In the same way that her essays center around Tinker Creek, so many of my early memories involve Cavanaugh Creek. That was where we built dams, set off fireworks, and got drinking water. I was standing on its shore when the rattlesnake crawled over my bare foot. The bucket-and-pulley system with which my parents used to send lunch down the hill from the cabin is mostly rust now, nearly as orange as the Tang it used to carry. That creek (and I unthinkingly pronounce it crick: my last remaining ruralism) was the one true watercourse for me as a child. Everything else existed in comparison to it.
Reading the book makes me realize, once again, how far I’ve come from those days and those mountains. And I realize consciously what I’d noticed unconsciously: how different water is here in the Netherlands. I mean ordinary water—I haven’t been here for extraordinary water (yet). Water here is powerful, but it’s placid. Its color changes with the sky, but it rarely splashes or sprays. It doesn’t add to the soundscape, either. I’m sitting 50 meters from a canal right now, but I can’t hear it.
It reminds me of Minecraft, where flowing water is a different substance than still. But I digress.
One of the more powerful and interesting images in the book so far is that of Tinker Creek as an expression of time:
I look up the creek and here it comes, the future, being borne aloft as on a winding succession of laden trays. You may wake and look from the window and breathe the real air, and say, with satisfaction or with longing, “This is it.” But if you look up the creek in any weather, your spirit fills, and you are saying with an exulting rise of the lungs, “Here it comes!”
I’ve been thinking about that image a lot, as I cycle beside our tranquil canals and take the ferry across the broad, flat IJ. Because water here in the Netherlands is time too, but in another way.
I’m going to digress again. I’m coming to the conclusion that digression is contagious, and I’ve caught a fever of it from Dillard.
In classical Greek, there are two ideas of time. There are in English, too, but they’re both called time, so it’s hard to tease them apart. Χρόνος is “a definite time”. We measure it with watches and calendars. What χρόνος does the train leave? But καιρός can also be translated “time”, in the sense of “the right time”. It’s καιρός to leave. When Paul Simon sings that someone was “born at the instant the church bells chime”, he’s describing καιρός.
Dillard’s creek may be time, passing us by from the future (“Here it comes!”), through the elusive instant of the present, and thence to the long outflowing of the past. By comparison, the IJ is a broad, smooth present, a sufficiency of now for whatever we choose to do with it. It’s the time that there will be, and there will be, to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; to murder and create, and for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate.
But more than one thing can be true at once. Καιρός exists within χρόνος. And Tinker Creek contains the IJ: somewhere in the rushing flow of the future to the past, we can find a vast expanse of the present, a microsecond of eternity upon which all our actions can sail.