Dillard’s poetic prose paints vividly her inside view of nature, making tangible what most not only do not observe but do not even think about—the soul of the living world. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a challenging book for young adult readers, but it is an invaluable one. The challenge is not a matter of difficult writing. Dillard’s prose, although it can be intimidating in its allusiveness, is as naturally lyrical as the reader’s heartbeat. The challenge of the book lies in the complexity of the life-and-death issues that it invites the reader to ponder: “‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’” The book is not only an exploration of Tinker Creek, but of the human soul, “a meteorological journal of the mind” that provokes readers to reexamine their experience. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek explores lovingly human beings’ relationship to the natural world, to one another, and to God. Its openness to new possibilities may be the book’s greatest appeal for young adult readers.
This volume stands in a long tradition of pilgrimage books that recount expeditions undertaken in search of faith. It also stands in a tradition of American writers who meditate upon nature, who find in the physical world stimulus for metaphysical contemplation. Dillard taps directly into the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau, the most influential of those transcendental observers whose book Walden (1854) explores the Walden Pond area near Concord, Massachusetts, as thoughtfully as Dillard explores the Blue Ridge Valley near Roanoke, Virginia. Dillard’s version of Thoreau’s close analysis of nature, however, is updated by the perspective of a modern woman. Where Thoreau sees incursions of society into nature, Dillard looks at nature breaking through into society. Where Thoreau yearns toward simplicity and unity, Dillard finds variety. Where Thoreau fights toward resolution of the great questions of life, Dillard insists on asking questions. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek replaces the secular heroism of Walden—the kind of ennobling of nature that can be seen in Thoreau’s battle of the ants—with a spiritual perspective. Behind both the beauty and the terror of nature looms God.
The only source more influential on Dillard’s book than Walden is the King James version of the Bible. It is not merely that Dillard often quotes from it; passage after passage of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek sounds as impassioned, as morally intense, as sonorously visionary as Isaiah or Amos or Malachi—and as beautiful. Her words taste good in the mouth, roll out so rhythmically, that it is hard to keep from reading the entire book aloud, hard not to speak such sentences as “New shows roll in from over the mountains and the magician reappears unannounced from a fold in the curtain you never dreamed was an opening.”
The book is a fertile merger of art and science. Scientifically meticulous as Dillard is in her observations, the book goes well beyond science. It does not so much ex-plain the world as ponder its wonders. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is less a scientific disquisition than a conversation, a poem, a prayer. In form, it is a walk together with Dillard’s wide-open eyes and wider-open heart beside Tinker Creek. The book’s natural rhythms, from winter to winter, are irresistible—the “Winter” chapter, for example, focuses on the kind of storytelling anecdotes that bloom in front of fireplaces on January evenings. “Intricacy,” where Dillard argues for the complexity of nature, is a longer chapter than most and features shorter, more detailed,...
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Dillard’s prose voice is unusually inviting, so honest and open that it seems as if she is thinking aloud and allowing readers to overhear. That invitational quality is heightened by the concentration of the writing, as if the reader were being invited to share honey. The most satisfying aspect of the book is the way in which the author can encapsulate in words what readers have only known as feelings, can squeeze bare essences of emotional experience into concrete metaphors, as in “you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.”
Its basic technique, meditation, reflects its essential genius. Dillard translates sight into insight. She returns repeatedly to an image, each repetition of that image making it richer. This leitmotif technique—reiterating as it does the bloody tracks of the cat, the sucked-dry frog, and the tree full of lights—works almost musically, like a refrain in a symphony, so that by the time one reaches the full-chorus climax, one is overwhelmed by its cumulative power.
Ultimately, Dillard not only sees what is really there and how much it matters but also helps the reader see it. She opens her readers’ eyes to fuller life, urges them not to miss the life before their very eyes. The world is more than people see “in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”