Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. By Annie Dillard. Harper’s, 1974.
We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
WAKE UP! WAKE UP! Take a hard look around you – listen – watch – and you will be blessed by what you perceive. This is the premise – penned, of course, with much more complexity and finesse – of Annie Dillard’s  Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Pilgrim’s opening short section on the author’s physical wakening – her morning rituals, her first thoughts and stirrings of the day – hint at a greater awakening in the pages that follow; pages that trace one full turn of seasons near Tinker Creek, North Carolina, Dillard’s modern-day Walden Pond.
It’s difficult to pin down what, exactly, the book is about; it’s an eclectic jumble, on one hand, of nature writing, science, philosophy, and personal experience – a firsthand account of a year spent relentlessly living and thinking near a place called Tinker Creek. But Pilgrim is no novice naturalist’s unpolished diary. It betrays, in its linguistic virtuosity and its conceptual complexity, the hand of a master writer and the mind of a modern eccentric. Dillard is the Thoreau you wished you could have read in high school: her writing is bold and generous, garnished with touches of sly wit and an obvious delight in the unexpected. She is an impish child hiding behind the corner, thrusting one strange treasure after another in the face of an unsuspecting passerby. She writes about everything from pinochle to RNA to patting a puppy to Asian bamboo torture, and she does so in a way that defies categorization – not that others haven’t tried. In the afterword to the 25th anniversary edition, Dillard writes, “I regretted naming the chapters, nineteenth-century-style, because somebody called the book a collection of essays – which it is not. The misnomer stuck, and adhered to later books, too… Consequently I have the undeserved title of essayist.” The confusion is understandable: the book, after all, has no specific central character (the author as narrator acts more like a translator, or facilitator, for the reader than an actual character) and sports no discernible plot. Imagine the difficulty the publisher had in doing the book justice on its jacket flap description! And in fact, there is no jacket flap description for the book – only a few reviews that pin down the book’s content better than any description ever could:
“This book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing. A reader’s heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled… There is an ambition about her book that I like… It is the ambition to feel,” was Eudora Welty’s assessment of Pilgrim. Melvin Maddocks, writing for Time, added that “Here is no gentle romantic twirling a buttercup… Here is …the savage and magnificent world of the Old Testament, presided over by a passionate Jehovah with no Messiah in sight… A remarkable psalm of terror and celebration.”
The religious language of the reviews is not unwarranted, and yet it’s largely metaphorical: no other vocabulary exists to convey the fervency and vigor with which Dillard approaches her topics of choice – most of which have little to do with religion. Few people approach the art of living with such zeal; when one comes across the rare individual who, like Dillard, not only aims for it but exemplifies it, one has only a limited number of ways to convey that sort of enthusiasm – and religious language is one. Dillard herself remarks on her unusual passion in the book:
I have often noticed that these things [I write about], which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.
She jokes, but she converts others to her way of thinking; she makes light of her intensity and eagerness, but she never loses sight of it. I am not making chatter, she declares. This is important. Dillard’s urgency is the urgency of a zealot, a pilgrim; she is the pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a wanderer in her own backyard, lost in thought, scribbling notes for the rest of us who are sleeping in.
Because “pilgrim” here doesn’t imply piousness in the traditional sense, Dillard’s religious attitudes are surprisingly difficult to discern. That she believes in God – in a Creator for the strange and beautiful world she experiences and writes in daily – is clear. What she believes about Him is not. Not given to blindness or sentimentality, Dillard sees and reports not only the breathtaking details of the natural world but also its ugliest – competition, carnivorousness, darkness, death: “The notion of the infinite variety of detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one; in complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance. But all this leaves something vital out of the picture. It is not one pine I see, but a thousand. I myself am not one, but legion. And we are all going to die.” In her writing she seems to ask, Who is this Dark Artist, this two-sided Creator? Who is this Mind that delights in both beauty and repulsiveness? Who? Who? She comes only to this conclusion: that the answer is ultimately unknowable – that we can guess what little we can of God from creation itself, the grandness and terribleness of it. Of the originating Hand we can only speculate.
Even in this Dillard finds cause to marvel – God’s inscrutability is an infinite source for wonder and reflection – and her writing loses no vital force for lack of easy answers. Pilgrim, then, with its singular sense of wonder and exultation, fervency and relentlessness, puts together what should be central to the Christian attitude and the Christian life. Dillard, in her quest to truly see, to wake up and take notice of the world around her, discovers a joy – even in the face of darkness and terror – that cannot be repressed:
I go my way, and my left foot says “Glory,” and my right foot says “Amen”: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.
Grace Tiao ’08, Assistant Managing Editor, is a freshman in Weld.