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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)

by Annie Dillard

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3,481531,525 (4.22)1 / 173
  1. 00
    In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau by Paul Lindholdt (bezoar44)
    bezoar44: These authors share some of the same fearless introspection; and while both study the natural world, it is in some ways just a (vital) context in which to explore what it means to live meaningfully.
  2. 00
    Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry (Othemts)

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I’d advise reading the afterward before; there’s no plot to spoil, and the brief summary of why and how is a helpful scaffold. This is not a book of independent essays, but it didn’t read to me as a unified whole either. Annie Dillard describes it as a “theodicy”, split into via positiva and via negativa. Also it progresses through the calendar year. It entwines acute observations of nature with gleanings from scientific reading and cosmic consciousness with a dose of naval gazing. And somehow Eskimos got in there. The result is not entirely coherent, IMO, but then I don’t place a high value on “lyrical” (a frequent adjective of praise) unless it is about something, and lyrical morphs into flamboyant a bit too often for my taste. It is about something sometimes though (and the other times may be my failure to perceive), when she sticks to the task at hand for several paragraphs straight, and then the lyrical writing is impressive and inspirational, especially so since she was a mere 27 years old at the time.

And after writing the paragraph above, I revisited passages that stood out for others in a group read, and saw depth and complexity that I had passed by. I was, I think, expecting a different sort of book, and didn’t fully make the mental adjustment while I was reading. Maybe this is a book best read slowly with pauses.

She begins with an introductory “I am an explorer” and a chapter on seeing, heavily reliant on Marius von Senden (Space and Sight), about the formerly blind making sense of color patches. Anecdotes are extracted from (among others) R. R. Askew, Jean-Henri Fabre, Edwin Way Teal (The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects), Rutherford Platt (The Great American Forest). I note these authors because I (or you) may want to read the originals.

She observes muskrats, starlings, snakes, frogs, fish, praying mantises, caddisflies, caterpillars, sycamores... learning what to look for and how to watch undetected, fascinated by critterly behavior on its own merits, and for what it may say about a “creator”. Whether this is metaphor or abstraction or religion is not clear (and I can’t draw precise borders around the words anyway). It is language that I, an apatheist, was comfortable enough with, as an effort to get at an ineffable essence beyond nuts-and-bolts nature, but it infuses the text; this is not the sort of treatise that gets an index. Nature is “intricate”, “extravagant”, “exuberant”, “profligate”, “fecund”; decidedly not efficient. If you want science, if you want to know that a caterpillar’s head has 28 muscles, that a locust is not simply a type of grasshopper but rather a form that occurs under crowded conditions, that the molecules of chlorophyll and hemoglobin differ only by one atom at the center, grab the fact as it flits by because you may not find it again.
2 vote qebo | Feb 16, 2014 |
After seeing past the exceedingly ugly cover of An American Childhood I discovered that I had discovered, all by myself and against all odds, this 'new' wonderful author, Annie Dillard. Imagine my delight when I hear she has written more books. And that some of them won prestigious prizes. And, I hear there are more books yet.....

This book though, not a collection of essays as has been suggested, but recollections and observations collated while living by Tinker Creek, Virginia. The story talks of all the seasons she experienced there, and of the thoughts that struck her- and she has many of these. To me, the intensity and passion of these thoughts were very much there, but so well balanced with a shrug to fate that the story does not read like a wall-to-wall rant. She re-frames the human experience by comparing it with the harsh realities of nature, and in doing so, I think, is able to make us step back and view ourselves and our own lives in a more balanced way.

The reading of this book requires concentration. You want to read each word in its chosen place, carefully. Consequently there are sections that went right over my head, but this did not stop me enjoying them purely for the language used and the way it sounded in my head. I feel I missed out a bit from not being local- most of the birds and plants are foreign to me so had to be imagined. But otherwise- this books flows so nicely, has many fascinating anecdotes and a tonne and a half of food for thought. ( )
1 vote Ireadthereforeiam | Jan 30, 2014 |
In Salvation Means Creation Healed, Snyder lists the various ways in which God's creation is misunderstood. One of those ways is the romanticization of nature. When we romanticize nature we ignore all the nasty bits—biting mosquitoes, parasites, carnivorous critters—and pretend it's somehow pristine and pre-fallen.

Dillard makes no such mistake.

The greatest strength of Annie Dillard is her ability to describe in compelling detail the beauty and terror of the natural world in her own back yard.

In one chapter, she's amazed at how a tree can transform "gravel and bitter salts into these soft-lipped lobes, as if I were to bite down on a granite slab and start to swell, bud, and flower" (112). A few chapter's later she's horrified by a nightmare occasioned by watching two huge luna moths mate—"the perfect picture of utter spirituality and utter degradation" (159).

Speaking of spirituality, Dillard's reflections on creation are profound, ultimately drawing her into praise:

"My left foot says 'Glory,' and my right food says 'Amen': in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise" (271).

Like poetry, Dillard's prose has to be savored slowly. This is the sort of writing that should be read aloud—every syllable is expertly placed.

Pilgrim is a classic for good reason. Dillard has paired her keen and honest observation skills with her beautiful mastery of language.

You will read this book more than once. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Sep 25, 2013 |
Her tendency to "stand gaping" and become "breathless" aside, Annie Dillard's writing is lovely, evoking things like rough palette knife paintings and softer pastel drawings, tactile and olfactory novelties, patience. She does a lot of waiting, and sitting, and watching, but it all seems quite effortless when one's reading about it. There's not a lot of stillness, which makes sense for a book about nature. There are constants throughout the book--complexity, fecundity, the certainty of death and rebirth and all of that--but the only really still thing is Dillard, the writer and watcher. She manages to put a great deal of herself into this series of meditations of Tinker Creek, without in the least seeming self-absorbed or passionate at the expense of lucid observation.

Good book to read while stuck in a basement temp job where you can't see the sky. It will make your cabin fever worse, though.

Ed. 3/17/08: I've been finding lately that I keep coming back to this book, reading the chapters out of order or in different combinations, and that each time it's possible to get something new (or differently-nuanced) out of it. So I'm adding another star, because it seems like a good thing to do. ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
For me, two stars means "I disliked it" (even though GR says it means "it was okay"). I usually don't finish books that I dislike, that's why I have so few 2 star reviews here on this site. However, this one seemed harmless enough, and there were aspects of the book I liked (at least when I started). For example, there are a lot of stories and anecdotes about nature that were really interesting: "On cool autumn nights, eels hurrying to the sea sometimes crawl for a mile or more across dewy meadows to reach streams that will carry them to salt water." These are adult eels, silver eels, and this descent that slid down my mind is the fall from a long spring ascent the eels made years ago. [...] In the late summer of the year they reached maturity, they stopped eating and their dark color vanished. They turned silver; now they are heading to the sea [...where] they will mate, release their eggs, and die. [...] Imagine a chilly night and a meadow; balls of dew droop from the curved blades of grass. [...] Here come the eels. The largest are five feet long. All are silver. They stream into the meadow, sift between grasses and clover, veer from your path. There are too many to count. All you see is a silver slither, like twisted ropes of water falling roughly, a one-way milling and mingling over the meadow and slide to the creek.This is interesting. It's this kind of stuff that kept me reading. There's still a little bit of over-writing in there that I despise, but whatever. Now listen to this next part: If I saw that sight, would I live? If I stumbled across it, would I ever set foot from my door again? Or would I be seized to join that compelling rush, would I cease eating, and pale, and abandon all to start walking? Blegh! The melodrama! The romanticization! The overly dramatic prose... and why does she always think everything has to do with HER? Almost every time she mentions some natural phenomena, she inevitably ends the thought with some kind of personal revelation or reaction. It's excessive and selfish and human-centric. It's exactly what I don't want to read in a book about nature. She just inserts herself everywhere, as if her thoughts are more important than what is actually going on.

As for the language, which people seem to praise, I found it bloated, overwritten and unnecessarily concerned with description. Not just description, but description bordering on embellishment. I felt her human hands in everything, making the beauty that she often describes into heavy labored prose full of awkward strain and effort. ( )
  JimmyChanga | Sep 11, 2013 |
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It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.
for Richard
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I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.
Not only does something come if you wait, but it pours over you like a waterfall, a tidal wave. You wait in all naturalness without expectation or hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will shear, loose, launch, winnow, grind.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061233323, Paperback)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the story of a dramatic year in Virginia's Blue Ridge valley. Annie Dillard sets out to see what she can see. What she sees are astonishing incidents of "mystery, death, beauty, violence."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:18:00 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A collection of essays on the natural world during a year spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains reflects the author's interactions with her wilderness surroundings.

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