Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

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)

Compass Rose, by John Casey

This 2010 work is a beautiful novel, and just my kind of novel. It became so on the very first page, as the key women of the novel attend a boy’s baseball game. Casey was perhaps comfortable with these women because he was so familiar with them, since they are characters we first met in his novel Spartina, which I so enjoyed and which won the National Book Award in 1989.

And I, too, was comfortable, for I encountered here a family group and their neighbors in a small Rhode Island town who regarded the world and each other with the same generosity and sensitivity with which I regard the world myself. Whether or not Casey was raised a Catholic, and even though there is no element of religion here, there is a sense of values that fully matches my own.

A compass rose is a marking on a compass that helps one orient oneself by showing the cardinal (north, south, etc.) and intermediate bearings of the compass. This novel is called Compass Rose, because the fulcrum of the story is a girl named Rose, as she grows from an infant to a woman heading off to college. This Rose is the illegitimate daughter of Dick, the main character of Spartina who is married to May, and Elsie, with whom he had a tempestuous affair in the first novel.

The title is doubly appropriate, because Dick earns his life at sea, where a compass is so necessary, and his daughter Rose is the character who brings together, who helps orient, the lives of everyone in this book.

While this is a continuation of Spartina, one does not need to have read that work to understand or enjoy this novel. It is entirely self-contained. And because it takes place across 18 years, it develops its own reality, its own frame of reference. Indeed, the events here read not like the plot of a novel but like actual life in this small community. It is primarily the story of Elsie and her daughter; of Elsie’s friend Mary who lives with them and sees the importance of Rose getting close to her father; and of May, Dick’s wife, whose acceptance is needed to bring Rose close to her father.

But there are also other important characters, many of whom are involved in a conflict between the long-time residents of South County and a luxury development at Sawtooth Point that wishes to expand by taking over the home of Dick and May, as well as other local property. The developer, Jack Aldrich, is married to Sally, who is Mary’s sister. Jack is the closest to being the villain of this novel, but he is so intent on doing good in his own terms that everyone finds it difficult to dislike him. The fisherman Dick is not a prominent character, since he is often at sea, nor are his sons Charles and Tom. This is the story of the women, and it is told from their point of view.

If the sea was prominent in Spartina, it is the woods, marshes and salt ponds that provide the natural element in this novel, a setting that stands in for the natural evolution of life, growth, decay, and death. These ponds and woods are beautifully described, and are a haven for Elsie who is a local nature warden.

Elsie has been introduced to this natural world by the elderly Miss Perry, her former teacher and another prominent character. Indeed, in her final days, Miss Perry commissions Elsie to become the conscience of the region, much as she herself was, in face of the proposed takeover by the encroaching Sawtooth Point.

There are many developments in this novel. The first is the bringing together of Rose, Elsie, Mary, May, and Dick. The second is the fate of Miss Perry. The third is the departure of Mary from Elsie’s house and her discovery of love. There are also minor dramatic elements, such as when Charles is injured at sea, when Dick ‘s boat sinks and he needs to be rescued, and when Rose earns the role of lead singer in her high school musical. But overall, from early on, hangs the shadow of the Sawtooth takeover of the property of these longtime residents.

Jack Aldridge, who runs Sawtooth, is an interesting character, complex on one level but mainly a shallow foil when compared to the women of the novel. He has an ambitious dream that he convinces himself will enhance the community, and he plots and maneuvers to have his way. Yet one doubts that Casey intends him as a true villain, based on the fate Jack encounters on the final pages. Indeed, those final pages reverberate with the sympathy Casey has for all his characters, and particularly the women.

The novel winds down with, first, Rose’s performance, and the negative reaction of Elsie, who just does not understand that her daughter has the same independence of spirit her mother had when she challenged convention in her affair with Dick. Slowly, Elsie realizes her own frustrations prompted by both the need to share Rose with others and the expansive maneuvering of Sawtooth Point that threatens everyone who matters to her.

Indeed, there is a final gathering of all the characters, as a resolution to the Sawtooth incursion is achieved. Ironically, or realistically, this resolution reflects the inevitability of human as well as natural evolution. It is another way of saying that we are all involved with each other and must bend to each other’s needs.

Dominique Browning, in her beautiful review in the Times, writes: “This bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations on true north, its own way of tilting into alignment. Like the love affair that is the novel’s magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy, ‘both ferocious, and serene,’ moments that bubble up, collapse, and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place.”

Another reviewer says that this is the second volume of a planned trilogy. Could the final volume revolve around the expansion of Sawtooth Point? I would indeed be interested in a concluding volume, for this work is far superior to anything else by Casey. But we surely cannot wait another 20 years for this 75-year-old author to produce such a work. (June, 2014)