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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)

by Annie Dillard

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3,512551,510 (4.21)1 / 179
  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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This is one of the best books I have ever read. Her writing is spectacular. It is exhilarating to read her descriptions of nature, and her own path toward meaning. ( )
  anitatally | Feb 1, 2015 |
This was one of those books that made me wish I had taken a much earlier interest in literature and creative writing. I am absolutely sure I would have gotten more enjoyment from this book than I did had that been the case. Commentary I’ve read about it compared Annie Dillard’s work to Thoreau and the other transcendentalists. Of course, I had precious little exposure to them in school so the comparison is largely lost on me. I did not pursue creative writing beyond the minimum requirements imposed on me as part of my course of study, so the style, rhythm and cadence of this work didn’t resonate with me at anything but a superficial level. So, my opinion of it will necessarily be based on my experiences and education.

I kind of view this book the way I would look at an abstract painting; like an artist trying to portray their feeling about a physical place or object through their art, the author here is trying to do the same with words. The book I think employs a narrative form and consists of several reflections and internal monologues on nature, existence, life, death and religion. It all revolves around the environment near the authors home adjacent to Tinker Creek in Virginia. The book is divided into four sections representing the seasons, and within each section chapters that enhance and amplify the larger theme.

I really enjoyed much of this, particularly sections in which Dillard would focus her observations on a particular animal or event. Monologues describing her efforts to get close to the muskrats living in the creek, her fleeting attempts to observe fish and insects were very enjoyable. She also did a wonderful, almost mystical, job of incorporating the latest (at the time) discoveries in the fields of physics, astronomy and chemistry into the narrative as though those aspects of the physical world were as much a part of her immediate surroundings as were the insects, birds and reptiles she was observing.

Some parts I didn’t buy, particularly the overall theological theme. Dillard describes her work as a theodicy – the study of why a benevolent God would allow manifestations of evil in the world. The cut throat existence most living beings endure in nature are used as examples. The often cruel and gruesome ways many of “Gods” creatures meet their ends is used as the anchor point for this exploration. Being an atheist I don’t believe there is any deeper meaning other than that evolution provides for. Creatures exist and evolve as a consequence of the environment they live it, not because some benevolent God has allowed it. So these themes had no resonance with me.

She uses the concepts of via positiva and the via negativa, with the first half of the book being the former and the last half the latter. The first refers to the notion that God is present in nature and is in some way knowable. The second refers to a God which cannot be comprehended and therefore what happens in the world are only attributes of God’s will and not a knowable truth. Dillard finds the latter more attractive based on her observations of the natural world as represented at Tinker Creek. Of course from my perspective there is no will at work here as there is no supreme being to work that will. I understand things as part of a quantifiable and understandable process that doesn’t contain the mystery Dilalrd see around her.

Nevertheless I came away from reading this feeling closer to the nature Dillard describes than a dry recitation of fact could ever convey. I think there is something in all of us that wants the world around us and our place in it to have a higher meaning. I think that desire is a result of an evolutionary impulse. Yet, it is within me and works such as this satisfy some of that need. ( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
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 |
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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)

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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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