“It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open.”
– Annie Dillard
The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Like all elementary school field trips, our annual excursion to the Aquatic Center at Texas State University (TSU) exists only in the imaginations of students until the day comes and goes. And these are imaginations that know no limits. When a ten year old hears that his weeks of lessons on pond life and ecosystems is going end in a creek, hunting critters with his classmates, he undoubtedly expects to wade in rapids, harpoon trout, and maybe even trap a few grizzlies.
When we approached the creek, however, the kids’ expectations did not quite match up with reality. The creek, it turned out, was a fifty-foot trickle of water that collected in various pools. There were trees and tall grasses surrounding the water, but certainly no wildlife. The expressions of the kids’ faces communicated disappointment. They were anticipating adventure, not stagnant, knee-high water with floating Dr. Pepper cans.
Before imaginations fully deflated, our guide from the Aquatic Center arrived and gave each student a net. The nets resembled those used for fishing, except that these had long broom-like handles and filters finer than a screen door. The guide waded into the water and held his net firmly against the creek bottom. Planting his left foot behind the net and moving his right foot upstream, he began unsettling the earth. Twigs, rocks, leaves, and mud mingled with the water as all three filled the net.
The students, now intrigued, gathered around to see this catch of inanimate objects. Slowly removing the contents one at a time, our guide carefully checked each branch and pebble for movement. And in the rubble, we saw writhing appendages. They were so small we barely noticed them until the entire organism was separated into a tray of clear, shallow water. With no objects to hide under, we could see what our guide called a “planarian,” or flatworm, clearly.
Looking at the little planarian, he explained to the students that despite appearances, there was an abundance of life in the creek. But this life is to be found in the areas out of sight and reach of their natural predators. With this new insight, the students jumped into the water and searched the slimy undersides of rotting leaves, scoured the porous cavities of limestone, and rustled up the earth laying still on the cold creek floor. And sure enough, there was an abundance of life.
In short order, we filled our trays with aquatic worms, backswimmers, black flies, caddis flies, crane flies, crayfish, damselflies, dragonfly larvae, hellgrammites, giant water bugs, gilled snails, lung snails, leeches, mayflies, nematodes, water pennies, and riffle beetles. Back in the laboratory, we examined each of these under microscopes. You could hear the “oohs” and “aahs” of students as they saw tiny blood vessels pumping life into a water penny no bigger than their fingernails. Or when they saw a millipede’s hundreds of legs moving in unison. Or when they saw the eye of a crayfish dart back and forth.
The longer we looked at these creatures up close the more it became clear to me that reality now exceeded the expectations of students. Perhaps one reason for this reversal was our inability to see reality properly. I came to this conclusion after reading The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.
Pilgrims at the Creek
In Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an unnamed narrator, who routinely explores Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, reflects on the intersection of the natural world and religion. Early on, the narrator remarks on the profligate, yet fleeting beauty of what she calls the “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” natural world:
“Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes and then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils.”
For the narrator it is clear that nature is full of concealed beauty, and the only way to appreciate it is through sight. Sight, or vision, is “a gift,” and like any gift, it must be properly developed because “the world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” The flashing fish, or the backwards swoosh of the crayfish, are such pennies.
While we began the day with imaginations on fire, we were not able to see the beauty around us because our surroundings seemed ordinary. Perhaps less than ordinary. To which our pilgrim at Tinker Creek would respond:
“But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?…It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty, bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”
Were we so blinded by visions of adventure that we failed to see the miracle of life right before our eyes? Perhaps we are so used to living in a “now-you-see-it-now-you-see-it-again-and-again-and-again” digital world of non-stop entertainment and distraction, that we no longer know how to look for or see beauty in the world around us.
Do we avoid streams because we are too busy streaming entire seasons of our favorite TV shows on Netflix? Do we dismiss life as mundane when its pace does not parallel the pace of The Black List, or True Detective, or Game of Thrones?
What we learned at the creek was that beauty exists in the seemingly mundane. Beauty is the heartbeat of a caddis fly under decomposing leaves. It is the wriggling body of a planarian in the silt at the bottom of a tired creek bed. It is even the tiny crayfish scuttling about hour-by-hour, avoiding the harpooning beak of a heron. And this beauty exists whether we choose to look for it or not. It exists when we have our eyes open to it, and when we have our eyes fixed on our phones. So how do we respond? The pilgrim concludes,
“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”