Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

I just finished my latest re-reading of Annie Dillard’s incredible Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the third of which I have done over the past two years. Now I’m quite sure that Mrs. Dillard or her 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning book don’t really need any more compliments, (leastwise not from a fledgling graduate student) but that’s not going to stop me from praising this masterpiece of writing for its exuberance and beauty. Perhaps it may even spark someone’s curiosity who is unfamiliar with Dillard to take a chance and dive into one of the most life affirming texts I have ever read.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek  is a memoir of sorts, concerned with a year that Dillard spent living in the woods of Virginia as she observed nature around her and wrote. She is our tour guide, teaching us things about nature that most people would never suspect, from the egg laying habits of dragonflies to the best way to stalk a muskrat. Most of all, this is a book about being truly alive and letting life seep into every part of your being as you walk in this strange, beautiful world.

This book is wrapped up in the present, both as a moment in time and also as an idea. Dillard speaks of the present as a character, hurtling through space and time, trying to get us to notice its machinations before it disappears into the past. In chapter five, appropriately titled The Present, Dillard invokes the present with such verve that it is impossible to think of it in the same way again: “The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from its undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.” Elsewhere, she describes the present as a form of grace, constantly giving us a second chance, as newness is birthed every instant.

When we can learn, or attempt as in my case, to see the present as Dillard sees it, it opens up the store of the world’s beauty to us. Along with that beauty, however, comes the realization of the horrors of nature: death, violence and pain. Dillard does not shy away from these things, examining this decrepit world with the intensity of an investigative journalist searching for answers. In Intricacy shes firmly lands on the side of beauty, while in Fecundity she is shocked at the excess of death present on earth. Her answer to this dilemma comes in the final chapter, The Waters of Separation, in a declaration of life and mystery: “It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”

This world is both terrifying and glorious, the mystery lies in how these two things can be combined in such a paradoxical way, existing alongside each other without overwhelming the other. Which has the final word? Death or beauty? Perhaps, as Dillard suggests, the answer is not as important as we think, for here we are surrounded by both, yet never truly noticing either. Before we cede control to death and march on our way, let’s search for beauty:  it’s very existence may change our minds about everything. Every beautiful or grotesque example that Dillard gives points us to a world that, although broken and run-down, is  filled with glory bursting from its seams. This is the planet we inhabit—an extravagant mess—and it is begging for us to realize this.

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