Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has been recommended to me a number of times now. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring it’s considered one of the great nature books and it won a Pulitzer Prize, so I thought it was time I checked it out. But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would, and I’ve been trying to work out why.
There’s no doubt that it’s a beautiful book. Annie Dillard lives by Tinker Creek in Virginia. She resolves to watch and observe the place where she lives, missing nothing – inspired by Henry David Thoreau, who kept what he called a ‘meteorological journal of the mind’. She goes walking, and watches the cows, finds praying mantis pods, sees ducks and frogs, and the prose alternates between natural observation and philosophical musing.
Some themes emerge, the most notable of which is the crazy mixture of the sublime and the horrific that exists in nature. There are moments that leave us breathless, where we stumble upon something beautiful – the dive of a bird, the evening light in a tree. There is no audience, the participants are entirely unaware of our presence, and it is our privilege to have witnessed it. Sometimes there are moments we will remember forever.”Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them,” Dillard concludes. “The least we can do is try and be there.”
But, we are just as likely to witness something horrible. Nature, and especially the insect world, is full of absurd and nightmarish creatures – predators that suck others dry, bugs that lay their eggs in a living host – insects that are “an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god”. Ten percent of all living creatures are parasitic. “What if you were an inventor, and you made ten percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring, or totally destroying the other ninety percent?” It’s as if the creation were “the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital,” as Dillard puts it.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is, more or less, about navigating this paradox, both celebrating and mourning. It is full of lovely descriptions, in a unique and wonderful writing style that is both earthy and poetic, elegant and childlike, full of surprising word choices and playful comparisons. There are some great observations about seeing what is around you, (“the lover sees, and the expert”) and lots of little facts dropped in for good measure (the average size of an animal is about the size of a housefly). It rambles, digresses and jumps from subject to subject, it is whimsical and sometimes frustrating. Perhaps it’s just a book that reflects nature, life itself: “It’s all a chancy, jumbled affair at best, as things seem to be below the stars.”
As you might expect, there is no resolution. Dillard finds no compelling reason for the world to be the way it is. The best we can do is embrace it in its fulness, appreciate the “freely given canvas” of the present. We can live un-self-consciously and innocently. “Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time.” I agree, although as a Christian I see more in the beauty and brokenness of the world, and its yearning to be redeemed. Nevertheless, Dillard’s is a remarkable reflection on this place where, like babies, “we have been set down.”
You can see why I wanted to like it, but it’s taken me weeks to write a review. Something has been nagging away, although that is a sign of a good book too, that it provokes thought long after you’ve finished it. So what is it that troubles me?
On reflection, I think there’s a big gap in Dillard’s philosophy: there is no notion of community. At least, not with people. She wants to live in harmony with the land around her, to fully observe and participate, but people are part of the ecosystem too. We’re a social species, and to be fully human is to be part of a family and a community. “I shy away from the arts, from the emotional human stew” she writes almost disparagingly, “and I drive myself deeper and deeper into exile from my own kind.” Thoreau retired from society, but to live prophetically outside it. Dillard seems to be seeking an escape, and misses the fact that the same blend of beauty and horror in the world has to be faced in society too, and in our own hearts.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is about understanding ourselves and our place in the world, by honestly confronting the paradoxes of nature. But I’m pretty sure that we find ourselves in the other, in relationship, in love. The wilderness is something we pass through on the way to the place where we find ourselves. It is in loving our neighbours both human and non human, that we best find purpose. As we give ourselves away we find ourselves, transcending the paradox and living well despite, or even because of it.
Maybe that’s it, the lack of humanity in the picture. But I’m not sure. Either way, I’m glad I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.