Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

by Robert A. Parker

This 1974 work is marvelous nature writing. And even if I am not a student of such writing, I cannot imagine, even in Thoreau, such deep observations of all forms of life, from spiders and salamanders, to dragon flies and starlings, to snakes and frogs, to even rivers and mountains and trees. And underlining all these elements of nature is the act of creation. With the primary question not being why these creatures exist, but why they have all been created so beautiful.

One can infer the direction in which Dillard is going from those who have inspired some of her thinking. They include Thomas Merton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Blaise Pascal, Martin Buber, Julius of Norwich, William Blake, and, oh yes, Edwin Way Teale, Albert Einstein, John Cowper Powys, Werner Heisenberg, and even W. C. Fields.

But even more, one comes across sentences like these, full of wit:

“It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize separating us from our creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.”

“If God is in one sense the igniter, a fireball that spins over the ground of continents, God is also in another sense the destroyer, lightning, blind power, impartial as the atmosphere.”

“I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘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, ‘did you tell me?’”

“The lone ping of being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.”

“Look, in short, at practically anything…and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.”

“A dot appears. A fresh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life.”

And she also asks: “What if I fell in a forest. Would a tree hear me?”

As one moves deeper into this book, it is clear that Dillard loves nature—nature at all levels from tiny molecules to distant stars. And finds more than enough to contemplate in every stroll down to the creek near her Virginia home.

But I am not taken by nature myself. If I am tempted to skim this book at times, it is because I have little interest in the details that fascinate Dillard, the details of birth, struggle, and survival for so many living things: muskrats, praying mantises, frogs, butterflies, sycamores, grubs, beetles, snakes, amoebae, caterpillars, salamanders, plankton, and parasites, etc., etc. What I am interested in, however, are her thoughts that follow these observations.

“Just think: in all the clean beautiful reaches of the solar system, our planet alone is a blot; our planet alone has death.”

“The faster death goes, the faster evolution goes.”

“But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely, we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die.”

“It is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go and have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can…go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.”

“The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die.”

Dillard has organized her description of nature to encompass a calendar year, and after beginning with winter scenes, she closes with the passing of autumn, as the birds and the monarch butterflies fly south, and the first winter frost arrives. She sums up her appreciation of nature, of the gift of life with: “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.”

To sum up, this marvelous evocation of nature, nature in the earth, in the water, and in the air, nature in sunshine and rain, nature in darkness and light, nature in heat and cold. But I am just not into the nature that comprises eighty percent of this book. Instead, I am into the conclusions, the meanings that Dillard extrapolates from her observations of nature.

They are: that nature had a creator. That nature acts without an awareness of mankind. That mankind must accept that nature without complaint. And that both nature and life are a gift from the creator, and all beings who accept this gift of life must also accept the death that goes with it. (March, 2015)

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