A Lifetime of Pennies

by Katie Poore

As a child, author and poet Annie Dillard would traipse through her neighborhood, searching for ideal places to stash pennies where others might find them. In her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a meditation on the natural world surrounding her home in a rural Virginia valley, she tells us she would nestle them “at the roots of a sycamore,” or perhaps “in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk.” She would draw arrows pointing toward the penny in chalk, sometimes writing tantalizing promises down the block: “SURPRISE AHEAD” or “MONEY THIS WAY.”

She wanted to give innocent passersby “a free gift from the universe,” she says. In her six-year-old mind, these pennies were just that: potent and grand indicators of a larger existential goodness, near-divine symbols of worldly benevolence.

Reading about this childish endeavor is endearing, and even admirable. It’s hard to imagine many children go about their days attempting to introduce such undeserved and good-natured whimsy into the lives of complete strangers.

But I know I never would have picked up Dillard’s penny. If I had followed her arrows at all, I’m certain I’d have seen the penny and rolled my eyes, leaving my gift from the universe behind. Let some other crestfallen explorer settle for such a scant cosmic prize.

But this is precisely Dillard’s point: How many gifts do we elect to bypass simply because they are too small? The chapter in which she recounts this tale is called “Seeing,” which begs the question: How blind are we? How resistant to wonder have we made ourselves, and how unaccommodating of the universe’s gifts? As Dillard phrases it: “Who gets excited by a mere penny?”

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pennies are a metaphor for the pockets of minute beauty and sublimity sprinkled across the world and its natural landscapes. They are opportunities, too often ignored, for immense wonder, or terror, or encounters with a magnificent and microscopic and miraculous glory. The world is “fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand,” perhaps as extravagantly orchestrated and intentionally placed as Dillard’s.

I’ve been fairly preoccupied with this idea lately, and with my own instinctive dismissal of the world’s smaller wonders. Dillard’s book is an absolute marvel, mostly because of her extreme receptiveness to the earth’s most diminutive dramas, played out upon stages as unassuming and ostensibly unremarkable as duck ponds. A bright berry in a bird’s beak, through Dillard’s transcendent gaze, becomes something divine and luminous: a “coal from some forge or cauldron of the gods.” Dillard pays the world an uncommonly scrupulous attention, one that dwells and delights in life’s minutiae and extracts from it something divine, philosophical, revelatory.

I can’t help wondering how such a posture toward the natural world might revolutionize our interactions with it and our efforts to protect it. In the present moment, dialogue surrounding wilderness and environmental conservation and stewardship largely draws on large-scale, vast imagery: the news of the tragic, heart-wrenching incineration of the Amazon that has circulated this week and been met with justified outrage and grief is one example. The outrageous foot traffic on Everest that has resulted in numerous deaths over the past years and months reveals a growing attraction toward conquering or communing with the most grandiose wild landscapes. Documentaries like Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Meru or The Dawn Wall, champion some of the most extreme, sublime, and death-defying rock climbing expeditions of the century, in some of the most austere and transcendent wildernesses on the planet. In an Instagram post protesting the decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, outdoor recreation company Patagonia cites Tommy Caldwell (professional rock climber and principal subject of The Dawn Wall) calling the refuge “the most pristine landscape [he]’d ever witnessed.” Patagonia includes a series of photos with severe, breathtaking, grand landscapes of looming mountains and glittering rivers, shrouded in an inscrutable mist or bathed in a lambent, golden sun.

In short: much of the rhetoric and imagery surrounding wilderness and climate change focuses on the preservation of large-scale, iconic and sublime lands. This is, certainly, because wilderness and climate change are large-scale entities and issues: we are, after all, talking about the very planet we inhabit, and the consequences of damaging this planet are tremendous in proportion.

But these wilderness conceptualizations and environmentalist vocabularies, rooted in a glorification of the world’s most magnificent landscapes and an emphasis on the purity, divinity, solitude, and moral refuge to be found therein, are only the latest in a long lineage of wilderness attitudes prioritizing the grand and the pure over the small and the quotidian. In his battle to prevent Hetch Hetchy Valley from being transformed into a reservoir for the city of San Francisco, famed conservationist, writer, and founder of the Sierra Club John Muir even goes so far as to insist that this valley is distinctly not average, saying in his essay “The Hetch Hetchy Valley:” “…far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, it is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions.”  It is, Muir insists, a veritable “glorious mountain temple.” In the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the legal (and still operative) definition of American wilderness and protected millions of acres of land, The Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser dictates that wilderness areas are those in which the land is “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “has outstanding opportunities for solitude.”

This is all to say that, in some of the most influential environmentalist texts of the twentieth century (and, arguably, of the twenty-first as well), rhapsodies over the largesse of nature and the solitude and spiritual bliss it offers overwhelm those humbler wildernesses found in the pages of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Nature is valuable and irreplaceable, these texts suggest, because it is big: we are electrified by its severe beauty. We can leave ourselves behind. We can commune with God. Nature is vital because it contains the world’s greatest jewels, not its pennies. It is worth saving because—well—look at it! Don’t we want to hold tight to Yosemite’s El Capitan, to Zion’s sprawling canyons, to those breath-stealing redwoods of Northern California or gently-rolling, hazy-edged ridges of the Blue Ridge?

My answer to this question is an easy and emphatic yes. These natural icons inspire a sense of fierce protectiveness in me, and I identify deeply with Muir’s manner of relating to and writing about these severe and wild worlds. 

But if  we think about the ubiquity of jewels and pennies, it goes almost without saying that pennies are the far more available resource, and jewels the far more appealing one. If access to this sort of existential wonder is as rare and costly as jewels, it is hardly universally accessible. It requires a certain amount of luck, privilege, time, and sometimes technical skill and physical fitness to access.

This is why I find Dillard’s novel so striking, and perhaps equally as salient to the contemporary environmentalist movement as many of our historical wilderness advocates. She is enchanted by the pennies: the bright green frogs, the three-foot saplings, the crooked-winged moths tottering down a driveway. She sits for hours by Tinker Creek, simply watching, waiting for a miracle that will most assuredly appear, if only one is patient, and looking.

Dillard hardly even casts her gaze toward the jewels. “I am no scientist,” she says at one point. I imagine a self-deprecating shrug. “I explore the neighborhood.”

I underlined those sentences copiously the first time I read them, scribbling a star and a few exclamation points in the margins to express how very earth-shattering I thought they were. Dillard gets this sense of wonder, this insight into the divine truth of things, by exploring the neighborhood?

When I return home after forays into mountains, I always feel disdain toward the neighborhood. It is tame, and flat, and there is little at which to marvel. But Dillard has eyes enough—and words enough—to reveal to us the great secret: scale has remarkably little to do with sublimity. Vastness has no bearing on divinity. The world is always available to us, in front of us, teeming with life, even if it is the ant skittering in the canyon-like cracks in a sidewalk. To seek only the high places is to be so paradoxically myopic as to be essentially blind. Chasing the beauty of the faraway renders our lives absent, and our care for the world incredibly limited. Muir’s High Sierra-induced euphoria is available to us even in our own front yards.

This philosophy feels especially emblematized in Dillard’s encounter with a flock of starlings. Starlings are, she tells us, a sort of pestilential species, so populous that in some towns residents can hardly stand to go outside because of the stench of their droppings. But while on a walk, Dillard becomes witness to an improbably miraculous sight: the flight of these starlings above her head, where they dart about with abandon. She recounts her impressions by saying:

After half an hour, the last of the stragglers had vanished into the trees. I stood with difficulty, bashed by the unexpectedness of this beauty, and my spread lungs roared. My eyes pricked from the effort of trying to trace a feathered dot’s passage through a weft of limbs. Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? 

I keep coming back to Dillard’s being “bashed by the unexpectedness of this beauty.” This is what the world offers us,  and what we often dismiss in our daily lives: the opportunity to be bashed, bowled over, struck by something unanticipated but breathtaking. To live in such a way with the environments around us is to fall more deeply in love with them and to experience, as Dillard does, a profound sensation of interconnectedness. She is a part of this vast, savage, mystifying natural order: an avid observer, certainly, but a component of it, too. Her own body is a landscape, cellular in scale but no less captivating because of it. She is a human encountering a natural and wild phenomenon, but the human and the wild are not so incommensurable as the contemporary environmental imagination might have us believe. Dillard brings the environment closer to home.

This manner of thinking provides a crucial and compelling counterbalance to modern-day appeals toward environmental conservation that beg us to cherish far-off and grandiose icons of wilderness. Those locales—and the wild and savage creatures living within them—are undeniably sacred, but the natural world is not so limited that it dwells only in the certain borders of national parks that we have drawn for it.

In fostering a more capacious view of what, precisely, wilderness is, and where it lies (simply put: everywhere), perhaps contemporary movements to combat climate change and encourage conservation and preservation might be greatly aided. If we begin to champion the sacrality of our home environments, alongside those of distant lands, we might foster communities whose emotional distance to environmental degradation is vastly reduced. Try as we might to move beyond ourselves, we are often self-centered creatures, more deeply affected by the things happening at home than those happening, and passively witnessed, at some unfamiliar place we most often see only through a blue-lit screen.

Our legal definition  of wilderness categorizes it as “other,” a place humanity belongs only fleetingly. While this is a crucial measure to reduce human impact on our more prized environments, perhaps we ought to expand the category, or at the very least pay more mind to the pennies sprinkled throughout our neighborhoods and towns. It may not be a “wilderness” like that found in Denali National Park, but it is certainly a part of this intricately-woven tapestry that comprises our planet. Even the smallest cohabitants in our home ecosystems are immeasurably precious.

Environmental critic William Cronon phrases it this way in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness:” “…to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead…In  its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature—in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism.”

Cronon asks us to relinquish our grip on the sacred wilderness idea, turning instead toward our own homes and gardens as a means of bringing personal responsibility to bear upon each of our environmental decisions. The more readily we identify ourselves and our neighborhoods as part of the larger planetary ecosystem (rather than insisting with a somewhat misguided reverence that we do not belong within it), the more readily we might take action to care for it, to identify within the seemingly mundane something of the intensely sacred.

I’m not keen to posit this as a panacea for every environmental evil we face, but I’d like to leave it, at least, at this: perhaps we could do to fall more in love with the minute. Perhaps we could do to fall more in love with the world immediately outside ourselves and our families, to seek sacredness in starlings and shadows, in the bright red skin of ripened apples and the naked branches of wintertime trees, in the sheer miraculousness inherent in the interconnectedness that microscopically laces this planet together. Let us be avid observers rather than starry-eyed adventurers, humble and utterly enchanted with that which seems humble around us. Our backyards, Dillard reminds us, are theaters of immensely complex life, the local woods intricate ecosystems harboring hidden battles and mighty triumphs. 

Let us try to see these, and revel in them. Let us walk through our lives with hands outstretched and eyes clear, hoping to catch the pennies the world continually throws our way. Let us stuff our pockets with them, and walk home heavy with the weight of all we have seen. Let us cherish the jewels when we have the opportunity,  but let us ultimately seek and save a lifetime’s worth of pennies.