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Looking Closer

November 21, 2009

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
By Annie Dillard

I think this is the first book I’ve written about here that is a re-read. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when I was a freshman in high school; my English teacher loved Annie Dillard and had us read An American Childhood as well. I’m thankful that she did, because Dillard still ranks in my list of most beloved American authors.

I chose to return to Pilgrim this autumn for two reasons: One, because it seemed like a very fall-appropriate title; and two, because I imagined it would make a different, more substantial impression on me than it did six years ago. I’d say I was right on both counts.

It is disarming to read a book with no people in it. I confess that it took me a while to get into her rhythm. I kept waiting for a narrative to burst onto the scene. But that’s not how Dillard works here. She’s patiently drawing you into her voracious, restless mind by sharing her observations, her impressions of the natural world. She is surprised by everything; she never stops asking questions. The book is peppered with references to every imaginable source–an etymologist’s memoir, Thoreau, Pliny, Inuit legends–all of which Dillard weaves together with skill and swiftness. She knows how to use just the right word at just the right time–a talent, I’d suspect, she learned from nature itself. The seasons come and go and we follow Dillard through her landscape, crackling through the forest, collapsing in a field to watch praying mantises mate, crouching by a river bed to wait for the muskrat to emerge in a flash of golden water. She asks us to follow her–and, even though we feel that she might be crazy–we do.

As I was reading this book over fall break, I was sitting at my kitchen table and was distracted from a page by the sound of a dozen rooks bursting out of a tree. I wondered what Dillard would say about them, what she would glean from their cries, from the patterns of their flight. And I began to wonder how my life would be different if I had her boundless curiosity. Fuller, perhaps; more saturated with joy in the small things.

As with most of her books, Pilgrim is soaked with the spiritual. She does not imagine that anything is separate. God and nature depend on one another. Some of her most gorgeous passages come from her reflections on this union.

On the dispersion of the divine:

It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?

On having to stalk the spirit:

Just a glimpse, Moses: a clift in the rock here, a mountaintop there, and the rest is denial and longing. You have to stalk everything. Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge. You have to stalk the spirit, too. You can wait forgetful anywhere, for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear before he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh; you can bang at the door all night till the innkeeper relents, if he ever relents; and you can wait till you’re hoarse or worse the cry for incarnation always in John Knoepfle’s poem: “and Christ is red rover… and the children are calling/come over come over.” I sit on a bridge as on Pisgah or Sinai, and I am both waiting becalmed in a clift of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: Come on out! I know you’re there.

Dillard wants to make me learn how to see again. She’s the modern naturalist, trying to unify all things, inviting us to sojourn a while with her. We would be remiss if we turned her down.

READ IF: You too would like to look more closely.

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