Book Review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
What is the true nature of Nature? Is it a harmonious, interconnected system, operating according to the principles of co-dependence and benevolence? Or is it red in tooth and claw — an unfeeling, unthinking force, in which the individual is overwhelmed and subsumed to serve a larger purpose, one mysterious and obscure? This is what Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all about: an exploration into the nature of Nature, an attempt to discover the true character of the natural world around us. Appropriately, it is neither a rapturous celebration of Nature, nor a grim survey of its various cruelties. Rather, like Nature itself, it is something in between — and something quite beautiful.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, first published in 1974, has endured to become one of the great American classics of nonfiction writing. Roughly described, it is a collection of related essays recounting the author’s thoughts on Nature as she observes the ecological happenings of the eponymous Tinker Creek for a period of several years. It is an unclassifiable mix of memoir, science, anthropology, folklore, philosophy, theology, ecology, and probably several other things that I didn’t even pick up on. It is expansive, complex, and eclectic. Dillard’s diverse interests give the text a richness and universality that many other environmental books lack (at first glance, at least), and this results in a work that could be equally appealing to the environmentalist, the philosopher, and even the priest.
But this eclectic combination of subject matter would not succeed unless it was tied together by excellent prose, which it is. Indeed, the prose itself is equally responsible for the book’s enduring popularity. Though only Dillard’s second book, she displays a virtuosic grasp of language that allows her to quote from scientific studies of rye grass while still maintaining a kind of breathless tension. Imagine National Geographic written by poets, and I think you have a good idea. Consider this passage:
It is amazing that trees can turn gravel and bitter salts into these soft-lipped lobes, as if I were to bite down on a granite slab and start to swell, bud, and flower. Trees seem to do their feats so effortlessly. Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn’t make one. A tree stands there, accumulating deadwood, mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes; it splits, sucks, and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green, fringed fling. No person taps this free power; the dynamo in the tulip tree pumps out ever more tulip tree, and it runs on rain and air.
That isn’t a paragraph, that is a journey! It begins with a lyrical description of tree growth, then moves on to scientific figures, incorporates religious terms (obelisk), and mechanical language (dynamo), and then returns to the lyrical style of its beginning, all the while maintaining the comparison between the author and the seemingly magical tree. This is the level of quality that can be found on nearly every page — passages that, in their intricacy, reflect Nature itself.
From Dillard’s musings on the natural world, we learn that the main problem with contemplation is one of observation. One cannot properly describe and appraise Nature unless one truly sees it as it is. In attempting to discern the nature of Nature, Dillard grapples with the difficulty of observing Nature accurately, with the difficulty of seeing. Nature is so “wholly gratuitous,” with such an “extravagance of minutiae,” that if one wishes to see it truly, they must accept a part for the whole. As Dillard says, “I do not understand even what I can easily see. I would like to see it all, to understand it, but I must start somewhere, so I try to deal with the giant water bug in Tinker Creek and the flight of three hundred redwings from an Osage orange.”
In the first half of the book, Dillard is often seized with a kind of wild rapture, an amazement with the diversity and complexity of Nature. But such a joyful understanding would be incomplete without acknowledging the dark side of such complexity. If the world is so large, what is the place of the individual in such a world? Dillard explores this question in a chapter called “Fecundity,” the bleak response to an earlier chapter called “Abundance”:
I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and with that extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day, include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
Dillard’s concerns are existential in scope, full of religious anxiety meant to offset her earlier spiritual exuberance. Indeed, the book is somewhat religious in nature, as the title demonstrates. As a “pilgrim,” Dillard is obviously searching for some kind of religious enlightenment, some kind of connection with a mysterious God. In her “Afterword” to a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, she admits that its thematic organization was religious in origin. The first half is meant to embody the via positiva school of theological thought, in which God possesses all positive attributes. The second half, beginning with “Fecundity,” is written from the perspective of the via negativa school, in which God is seen as unknowable, with all attributes, positive and negative, inapplicable in the face of divine mystery. This conflict is made manifest by a continuing tension between Dillard’s joy in the face of beauty and alienation in the face of bewilderment.
It is in this conflict that we find the book’s relevance to the environmental movement and, indeed, all of humanity. Nature, the environment, the natural world — whatever you want to call it — is simply so beautiful, so complex, so big (and I mean big) that the only appropriate response to it is a deep humility. Indeed, the average human being can only come away from the book chastened by its presentation of Nature’s mystifying workings. Our own synthetic, consumptive activities look cheap and shameful compared with the mechanics of a small creek. After reading Pilgrim, even the most ardent developer would probably be forced to think twice about cutting down an ancient stand of trees to pave the way for another execrable subdivision.
And all of this from one woman’s observations on the flora and fauna of a nearby creek.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “[T]he world globes itself in a drop of dew.” What we learn in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is that the world, whether it be a drop of dew or the whole of the universe, is a stunning thing — equally wonderful, equally terrible, and full of mystery.
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