On Sunday, August 24th, Nick Schuurman finished our summer series in Beasley park by reflecting on the book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard. Here are his notes from his Blog for those of you that missed the Night.
I remember when I first read through this book.
It was about this time of year, on the Labour Day long weekend, four or five years ago now, and a few of my old friends and I were sitting around campfire near Lake Erie. I had slowly made it about half-way through, and I remember what I was reading that day – not because I usually remember those sorts of things, but because what I read was, for whatever reason, or set of reasons, profoundly astonishing and beautiful to me in that moment.
I also remember it because I must have ended up reading the following paragraphs aloud to four or five people that day:
“[They] studied a single grass plant, winter rye. They let it grow in a greenhouse for four months; then they gingerly spirited away the soil – under microscopes, I imagine – and counted and measured all the roots and root hairs. I four months the plant had set forth 378 miles of roots – that’s about three miles a day – in 14 million distinct roots. This is mighty impressive, but when they get down to the root hairs, I boggle completely. In those same four months, the rye plan created 14 billion root hairs, and those little strands placed end-to-end just about wouldn’t quit. In a single cubic inch of soil, the length of the root hairs totaled 6000 miles.”
Not everyone shared my fascination with that little biology lesson, to say the least. To be fair, I wasn’t sure, and I’m still not entirely sure what exactly it was about those pages, and those details that stirred something inside of me.
Some background to the book: While in university, Annie Dillard wrote her Master’s thesis on Henry David Thoreau’s memoir, Walden, which Thoreau wrote during and after a stay of two years, two months, and two days alone in a cabin he built in the forest of Concord, Massachusetts. Published in 1854, it was a book about simplicity, life in the woods, civil disobedience and self-reliance.
A century-or-so later, in 1971, Dillard, who was at that point finished her graduate degree, suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. She decided, like Thoreau, to move away from what seemed like the centre of things, to a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. While there, she began (like Thoreau in this regard also) to keep a journal about what she saw and experienced exploring the landscape surrounding her cabin.
Here is how one writer described her writing during that time:
“The journal soon ran to over 20 volumes. She transposed the entries onto thousands of note cards and then, for eight months, wrote the note cards up into a book. Towards the end of the eight months, Dillard was working for up to 16 hours a day. She lived mainly on coffee and Coke, and lost 30 pounds in weight. The plants in her house died”
In some ways (though Dillard has repeatedly and firmly shrugged off the classification) the book that resulted bears similarity to other nature writing. Its author writes at length in one chapter, for example, about the various forms of clouds and the phenomena associated with them. She devotes numerous paragraphs to the habits of several insects, and elsewhere discusses, among other things, the history of invasive species of birds and how butterflies taste with their feet. All of which, I realize, probably does not seem like something that would captivate a reader’s attention, unless you are really into those sorts of things, and I am into those sorts of things, mind you, but probably not enough to read a nearly-300 page volume about them, under normal circumstances.
So what on earth captivated me when I read this book? What Eudora Welty wrote in her 1974 New York Times review of the book explains a bit of it, I think. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she argued, “is about seeing.” It is, if I can expand on her thought, about an attentiveness to both the beauty and terror of the world, and the senses of awe, sadness and hope that result.
For Dillard, these glimpses into the natural world were acts of devotion – not towards the things themselves (though she has at times been accused of such), but towards something larger and even more beautiful and powerful. Her favorite childhood book, she writes, was A Field Guide to Ponds and Streams. Looking back, she compares it to The Book of Common Prayer. Inasmuch as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book about the natural world, then, it is also a book about what lies beneath the surface of things, and above it.
Dillard discovered what would become her project’s central metaphor when she read a book called Space and Sight, which recounted experiences of some of the first people to have received cataract surgery. Effectively blind, they underwent these operations and were given vision for the first time. Having been unable to see for their whole life, most of them had no frame of reference or language to describe what they saw.
Of one woman who experienced this radically sharpened sense, the author of the old medical journal wrote, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed, ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”
Another little girl, suddenly un-blinded, stood in an orchard, speechless at the sight of daylight flooding over the peaches, until she broke the silence, pointing to what she called “the tree with all the lights in it.”
The “tree with all the lights in it” becomes Dillard’s way of speaking about her experience along the creek in Virginia. Something inside of her is awakened as she spends her time walking through the woods, looking out the window of her cabin and sitting along the water. It is as if she is un-blinded to the beauty and brokenness of the universe, and to the great Mystery that spun things into being.
“Beauty and grace,” she writes, “are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there… so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
That said, paying attention to the natural world around us is at times anything but idyllic. Dillard also writes, as one reviewer has listed, about parasitic insects, killer whales tearing apart sea lions, and a mother octopus that lays thousands upon thousands of eggs, all of which but one will die.
Put otherwise, in the language of another author who has studied her work, Dillard tries to find language for the reality that “the natural world both reveals and obscures God.”
Paying attention to what lies in the woods and water around us will, in other words, expose the staggering glory of creation that the Hebrew Psalmist speaks of, as well as what the Apostle Paul describes as its groaning – the violence, terror and corruption of the universe. As much as Dillard is looked to as a nature writer, then, she has also become known as someone who has committed herself to the consideration of God in light of suffering and evil.
I spent some time these past few weeks trying to pin down what it was that caused this book to resonate so deeply with me when I first read it. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a beautiful book, but a difficult one, which took me a very long time to finish. It seems to lack a narrative, or any sense of continuity for that matter, and readers are prone to both getting lost and losing interest in the minutiae of Dillard’s subject matter.
At that point in my life, though, I was weary, and weary of the language with which I had grown used to thinking and talking about God. As necessary as I understood and still understand they are, I was tired of debate, lectures and lesson plans. As much as I wanted to get at the truth of things, I wanted also to get lost in the joy, goodness and incredible complexity of it all. I wanted, in all my attempts to understand what little I was able to of God, to be left in awe at something much bigger than I could wrap my head around, at something that left me surprised and experiencing delight.
As strange as it sounds, a paragraph about the astounding roots of a single rye plant allowed me that, if only for a little moment. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was for me, in that tired and messy season of my life, a small doorway into a world of wonder. Even in its consideration of the darker, more sinister elements of creation, the book meant a lot to me when I first read it. Dillard didn’t brush these things off, but kept looking, and kept writing, and kept them there at the centre of things. She described them in detail, while maintaining a sense of the sacredness of life, and the presence of God in the midst of it all.
She lost herself in the great show of things, and I lost myself for a little while in her description of it.
“After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place,” she writes, “the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagance, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”