Annie Dillard is no mere “nature writer,” and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, is more than a book about simply “walking around the woods.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek blends spirituality, environmentalism, awe, and wonder with narrative, research, questions, and answers. Although the work is set at Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, it could be a story about any natural place, experienced anew by any person journeying through, like a pilgrim.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is organized into fifteen chapters, each with simple titles such as “Seeing” or “The Present.” The chapters move chronologically through the seasons, starting with winter in January. No chapter, however, is limited to what is happening at Tinker Creek in a given month. Rather, the chapters are thematic, as indicated by their titles. There is a larger theme of spirituality, as the book explores the two routes to God in the tradition of neoplatonic Christianity. The first half of the book shows the positive route, via positiva (celebrating a creator’s glory, reveling in balance and existence, knowing that a god exists and is good); the second half shows the negative route, via negativa (acknowledging God’s unknowability, as well as the bizarre fecundity and voraciousness of the natural world, where eventually everything will die and nothing can ever really be known).
The book starts with what is perhaps its best-known scene: Dillard’s old tomcat returns from a night of prowling and traverses her body and bed, leaving bloody footprints across her chest that look like roses. She showers away the scarlet marks, musing on what it means to wake to beauty and violence from unknown adventures. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the book, which treads a tightrope between opposites.
Dillard says that a partial inspiration for the book comes from writer Henry David Thoreau, who, in composing Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), wanted to find a way to keep a journal of mind; Dillard, like Thoreau, is certainly a Transcendentalist. However, before the first chapter ends, Dillard has turned Walden on its head and redefined “nature writing.” In the course of a basic description of Tinker Creek and the surrounding landscape, she slips in paragraphs written in second person, references an obscure story about a canary, tells readers about the habits of giant water bugs, quotes Albert Einstein and Blaise Pascal, and grapples with the concepts of grace, death, spirituality, and wonder.
Dillard maintains this whirlwind style throughout the book. She is a storyteller, and she realizes the story of the land is more than just the recollections of daily walks through the land—it includes all the writing and research that has come before, from folklore to religion to small-town news. She often refers to what she is reading or has read or wants to read, leading to chapters that form encyclopedias of the sublime. For example, in “Seeing,” she uses an anecdote to tell about her childhood ability to see insects at a distance, tying sight to the following topics: drawing, brain circuitry, perception, amoebas in river water, cataracts, internal monologues, and various medical triumphs related to surgery for the blind. Her prose moves effortlessly and with...
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