Mysticism by the Waters: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

41vzd0Zp9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was quite the journey. I suppose, having read some quite skeptical and suspicious literary critics who don’t take too kindly to Dillard’s kind of writing, I expected something quite different. Instead, I was continually surprised by the poetic lyricism and, dare I say, mysticism of Dillard’s year-long journal of Tinker Creek (the book also won her a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction). She talks not simply of the animals, insects, and plants that reside in the creek outside her door, but also, quite frequently, of the divine, aesthetics, beauty, and human consciousness. I find myself unable to quite describe my own reaction to Pilgrim because it is so far-ranging and well-crafted. Sure, there were moments when my eyes rolled a little at the sometimes frustrating tangents into metaphor laden philosophy, but there were other moments where I had my breath taken away. The entire book could be summarized in a line Dillard gives about halfway into the book: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery” (143).

Pilgrim is not a quick read because it moves so easily across natural history to theological musings and back, hitting history, astronomy, physics, mythology (particularly Inuit), and poetry along the way. I would hesitate to put this book in the same category as a book by Bill Bryson or even nature writing per se. There is too much poetry and mysticism in this book to confine it to that category. Some readers will love it and others will be turned off by it (I think I am somewhere in between if I am honest). Her description and reflections on the eating habits of a giant water bug are startling both for the insect’s horrifying eating habits and for the way that Dillard weaves the seeming cruel brutality of nature back into an unorthodox praise of all things created. This kind of literary skill is worth dipping into Pilgrim for, but I think readers really need to take their time with Dillard’s work. It, like the writing of most mystics, does not divulge its full meaning or depth on the first surface reading. In a way, I could see myself continually coming back to this book to dip into its waters again and again.

This is partly because Dillard works in a non-linear manner. She comes back to several key episodes including the giant water bug and an oak tree that enflamed her imagination, deepening her reflections on these episodes and using them as touchstones to bring her thoughts back in a circular manner. In doing so, Dillard gives us not just a literal or natural historical sense of Tinker Creek but also a spiritual sense of the area. If you are looking for someone to re-enchant landscape for you, then Pilgrim is a great field guide. Tinker Creek is neither wilderness sublime nor controlled nature, but somewhere in between, making it a useful template for most North Americans. We could all use a little more enchantment with the natural world in our lives, and Pilgrim might be able to help us to find it (or you may find yourself turned off by it …).

I am somewhat on the fence with this book. I think it could be a great read for some readers while for others I would hesitate to recommend it. If you like contemplative thought (think Thomas Merton, the Christian Desert Fathers, or most Buddhist writing), then this book will appeal to you. If you like your facts kept high, dry, and safe from “subjective” feelings and emotions, then stay away.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974. Print.

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