Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, part the first

Clearly I will need to publish this review in two parts, for the sake of your patience with my long-windedness. Actually I fear three posts. This is a fascinating book about which I have mixed feelings and many tangential thoughts; also at about halfway through, I’ve filled three bookmark slips of paper with notes rather than the average one-or-less-per-book, so there you are. This is my review of roughly half the book.


pilgrimattinkercreekDespite a promising beginning, I am not sure that I love Annie Dillard as much as do many of my favorite authors. Odd, that. In fact, I enjoyed Christine Byl’s Dirt Work far more. And she hasn’t won any Pulitzers (yet).

For one thing, there is too much theology for my taste, and too much metaphysical rambling metaphor: seeing visions, entering the past and seeing the future. Too much philosophy, man’s (“man”! too much “man”! 1974 this was published, by a woman, and still the universal creature is “man” rather than person or even woman for goodness’ sake) …man’s self-consciousness, relativism… and not enough just being. I’d rather spend more time in the picture and less time examining the frame and the picture-maker, if the picture is our world.

Wikipedia brought some interesting thoughts to mind. [I take Wikipedia with salt; but I still find it a useful starting point for general knowledge.] For example: “The author has described [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek] as a ‘book of theology’, and she rejects the label of nature writer.” What is up with people “rejecting the label of nature writer”? Edward Abbey did, too, which rejection I think in turn his readers reject. Of course, Dillard’s point – that this is more theology than nature writing – helps explain part of my problem with it. But then, there is excellent nature writing within it: I love the finely detailed discussion of insect habits. Oh, and while we’re mentioning him: “Edward Abbey in particular deemed [Dillard] Thoreau’s ‘true heir’.” Both these quotations from Wikipedia come sans specific reference, although there’s a solid-looking reference list at the end of the article. So, take that with salt, as I said.

Dillard did remind me of Thoreau, which is both a compliment (obviously) and a qualification, for me personally, as I struggled a little with Walden, too. Walden was apparently the subject of Dillard’s master’s thesis, so we can expect some parallels there. I would call these two books a readalike pair, and recommend the one if you liked the other.

Now, on the Annie Dillard Wikipedia page, I found more useful phrases: “one critic… call[ed] her ‘one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century'” for her apt descriptions of the natural world (I imagine that critic had the mating practices of the praying mantis in mind!), which I find delightful, and true in a most positive sense. And “In The New York Times, Eudora Welty said the work was ‘admirable writing’ that reveals ‘a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled… [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare,’ but ‘I honestly don’t know what [Dillard] is talking about at… times,'” which is, again, a great way to put it, and I couldn’t agree with you more on all counts, Ms. Welty. Both these quotations are attributed, by the way: the first, to Dillard’s website, and the second, to the NYT review in question. Not attributed, however, is the assertion that “In 1971 she read an old writer’s nature book and thought, ‘I can do better than this.'” This would seem to belie the phrasing of the Wikipedia Pilgrim article that she “rejected the label of nature writer.”

But oh, then I got to chapter 7, “Spring.” I am entranced! She writes about learning languages and yearning to decode birdsong, about the mockingbird that sings from 2am til 11pm in her chimney in springtime; about newts, to whom “no one pays the least attention… except children”; more about trees (I love it); and then the part about the duck pond, which is hilarious, wise, and again hilarious. This is where we meet the plankton about whom she is rather passionate, and she studies them under the microscope.

I don’t really look forward to these microscopic forays: I have been almost knocked off my kitchen chair on several occasions when, as I was following with strained eyes the tiny career of a monostyla rotifer, an enormous red roundworm whipped into the scene, blocking everything, and writhing in huge, flapping convulsions that seemed to sweep my face and fill the kitchen.

Rather, she does it as a “moral exercise”, because “if I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer.” In chapter 7, I love this woman and this book. It was in chapter 7 that I got up from my lunch – during my lunch break, I walked away from lunch – to find Liz, who was on duty at the reference desk, to read her a page aloud. (That was the page about the duck pond and the frogs.) So along with my complaints, there is much to love in this book. Take for example the section on the mating habits of the praying mantis: Dillard portrays these practices as horrifying, hilarious, and disturbingly like our own; it is a feat. I think I like her best when she digs into the science and minutia of the natural world, and exclaims in joy, fear, disturbance, or wonder at it. In other words, when she is a nature writer (wink).

Stay tuned for my review, part the second, and we will all find out together what my final feelings for Dillard will be.

5 Responses

  1. “mixed feelings and many tangential thoughts”

    This is frequently when I find I write the most. I wrote quite a few blog posts about the Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and I was so unimpressed with the first book that I barely finished it (I skimmed the last 100 pages). But I definitely had “mixed feelings and many tangential thoughts.” (Of course, sometimes when I write a lot it’s because I really like something a lot. 🙂 )

    “man”! too much “man”!

    In 1974 that must have been deliberate, rather than the sort of default position it would have been decades earlier. (My detective character still uses “he” to refer to a person of indeterminate gender, as I was taught in school but as few people do anymore, but that’s part of her conscious old-fashionedness and eccentricity.)

    “she rejects the label of nature writer”

    It’s interesting how writers try to position their work. Sometimes it’s in order to avoid reductive readings, as when Tolkien rejected any connection between Lord of the Rings and his experiences in World War II, which I always thought was to try to avoid simplistic “Oh, of course, Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for World War II” interpretations.

    It would be interesting to know when she said it was a work of theology. Was it at the time of publication, or was that something she said much later?

    • Great responses Anthony, thanks as usual for engaging!

      I can’t answer your last question, of course, as to when she called it a work of theology. She is exploring the “creator” and the meaning of the world and such things, so I think that’s not an inaccurate representation in certain senses, and in certain parts of the book. My favorite parts are when she tends more toward nature writing; but there’s theology, too, I’d say.

      You say all the “man” must have been deliberate; but how to explain this? I didn’t detect any sense of irony or tongue-in-cheekiness; I read her as just honestly thinking of things in term of “mankind”. You’re right, it’s a strange reflection of the times. I can’t explain it satisfactorily to myself. Would that you were right, but if so, she never closes the circle or makes the point.

  2. […] Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, part the first […]

  3. […] afraid I am continuing with my mixed feelings here, as in my first review. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for me, comes in sections, or in three parts. As I wrote, the early bits […]

  4. […] at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the […]

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