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Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard

Some books, a very few, are so rewarding that you know that you will be rereading them, in part or whole, again and again. Once is not enough. So it is with this book. I first read it more than ten years ago but was tempted into picking it up again after listening to a Backlisted podcast. There is such a richness in Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek, good writing, close observation, and thoughtful reflection that I know that I will return to it again and again.

Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek

The author is the pilgrim, not on a religious journey, but she moves through one year and explores deeply the natural world where she lives. Why focus on Tinkers Creek?

I live by a creek, Tinkers Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. […] It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks – Tinker and Carvin’s – are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is a mystery of continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection. (2-3)

This paragraph reveals the many themes of this wondrous book, together ‘an active mystery’. Annie Dillard’s first book Tickets for a Prayer Wheel consisted of poems and was published in 1974, the same year as Tinkers Creek. You immediately notice the lyrical and poetic in her prose.

In this post I am going to highlight the aspects of Tinkers Creek that most struck me on this second reading. Its abundance exceeds what I can convey in one blogpost.

Cruelty and amazement in nature

Early in the book she presents an anecdote about a frog.

A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. […] Frogs were flying around all around me. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. […] He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and dropped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. (5-6) 

As the frog to collapses into the water, she realises that he has been consumed alive, from within, by a giant water bug. She leads us in a meditation on cruelty and horror in nature. This a theme that she revisits, especially as she observes creatures that consume their prey live, or she imagines the horrors of meeting fat eels crossing land in the dark. But all the time she is full of the wonder.

Abundance and over-abundance

The theme of abundance is also visited several times in Tinkers Creek. There is the time of the flood when the waters burst from their usual limits, changing landscapes and the environment. And she writes of the fecundity of the rock barnacle: the barnacles encrusting a single half-mile of shore can leak into the water a million million larvae. (126). She describes a scene when she walks through a meadow with grasshoppers leaping as she passes, hundreds and thousands of them. And she observes that nature goes beyond what appears to be necessary, adding flourishes and decoration without apparent purpose.

The wonder is – given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time – the wonder is that all forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found, like mockingbird’s freefall. Beauty itself is the fruit of the creature’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same growth, the intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time. (146)

First edition 1974

Mind-boggling

Annie Dillard reports on the observations of others, such as this enquiry into the roots of plants:

The experimenters studied a single grass plant, winter rye. They let it grow in a greenhouse for four months; then they spirited away the soil – under microscopes, I imagine – and counted and measured all the roots and root hairs. In four months the plant had set forth 378 miles of roots, that’s about three miles a day – in 14 million distinct roots. This is mighty impressive, but when they get down to the root hairs, I boggle completely. In those same four months the rye plant created 14 billion root hairs, and those little strands placed end-to-end just about wouldn’t quit. In a single cubic inch of soil, the length of the root hairs totaled 6000 miles. (163-4)

She explains how she tracks a muskrat, observe a copperhead snake, a monarch butterfly, the light changing from the mountains, the perseverance of plants, and so on. She quotes from philosophers, naturalists, philosophers, and Thoreau whose work Walden (1854) she had studied and on which she had written her MA thesis. She is witty, light-hearted, and deeply interested and interesting. And her elaborate but accessible prose always enchants even as it is in service to the content. This is not so much a book about nature as about being alive and present and noticing in our current world.

Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard

She was born in 1945 and brought up in Pittsburgh. Her approach to life was nurtured in the local library and in certain texts (The Fieldbook of Ponds and Streams) and The Natural Way to Draw) which taught her how to observe. She describes this in An American Childhood (1987) which I also commend to you. Writers might find her advice – ‘write as if you were dying’ – invigorating. It is included in her book The Writing Life (1989). She taught creative writing for 20 years and published essays, poetry and two novels as well as creative non-fiction.

Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard first published in 1974. I used the paperback edition from Harper Perennial, published in 1985. 277pp

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1976.

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