That which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.
Annie Dillard was twenty-nine years old when she wrote this book, a loosely structured account of a year exploring the woods, fields and waters around Tinker Creek, in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia. It isn’t precisely the landscape where I grew up—I was raised on the other side of the mountains, Charlottesville, in the Piedmont, the foothills, of the Blue Ridge—but it’s only an hour’s drive from my house, maybe less, and the basic topography is familiar. Less familiar is Dillard’s characteristic way of engaging with the world, an intoxicating combination of hard biology and religious or mystical awareness, the numinous and the natural in harmony.
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek is complicated by any attempt to work out where it sits, generically. Dillard’s voice is relentlessly first-person, which gives the whole endeavour the feeling of memoir. She starts off with an anecdote that embodies the full effect of her dreamy but also highly sensual style:
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…Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice…I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here”, a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”
We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery. Though it’s easy not to notice it in the onrush of Dillard’s words and the sweep of her wonder at discovery, what she’s writing about throughout the whole book is really that question of mystery. What kind of creator allows such wanton waste as we see in the natural world? She understands the principle of red-in-tooth-and-claw; she observes it daily. Insects in particular, she notes, are horrifying. Nearly every species has some behaviour that is revolting or appalling to humans in some way. Yet they need to live.
We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery. So take that sentence apart, phrase by phrase. We wake. She writes of the experience of living outside of yourself, observing outside of time. She writes of turning off your internal commentary—something particularly difficult, I think, for writers to do—and of simply existing. She stalks muskrats by doing this: sitting on a bridge and just waiting. They have bad eyesight. They will not notice you unless you move, but you cannot be still enough until you have slipped out of time, ceased to engage in human self-consciousness. You can see, I hope, why “mystic” and “transcendent” are words so frequently bandied about Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.
If we wake at all. And yet Dillard is absolutely not a sentimental New Age drip. She concedes, readily, that we inevitably miss a lot. This is not due entirely to our own inability to stop our inner commentaries; there are some things that the universe and physics are designed to prevent us from seeing. (There, again, another scientific concept that slyly also fits a religious model of thought. She’s not trying to trick us into accepting monotheism; dogma couldn’t be further from the point. But the coincidence is striking, she seems to say.) This saddens and alarms her:
In the great meteor shower of August, the Perseid, I wail all day for the shooting stars I miss. They’re out there showering down, committing hara-kiri in a flame of fatal attraction, and hissing perhaps at last into the ocean. But at dawn what looks like a blue dome clamps down over me like a lid on a pot. The stars and planets could smash and I’ll never know…Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after another. It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see.
Mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… She speaks of Shadow Creek. Shadow Creek is the horror and the glory at the heart of the world. Shadow Creek is a metaphysical companion to the physical presence of Tinker Creek, running through it, under it, next to it, always. Shadow Creek is the story she tells of seeing a frog deflate before her eyes, its skin crumpling; it was being liquefied and sucked out of its own body by a predatory giant water bug. Shadow Creek is the fear and trembling we feel when we contemplate unknowable enormity: “I see dark, muscled forms curl out of water, with flapping gills and flattened eyes. I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars bowing to deepest stars at the crown of an infinite cone.”
It’s almost impossible not to quote heavily, because the writing is so incredibly beautiful. Perhaps a little overblown in places, but she writes with an almost biblical authority; the rhythms are sometimes those of Shakespeare, sometimes those of gospel tent preachers, sometimes those of the Pentateuch. At twenty-nine, Dillard had the steel-spined confidence of a born writer and a born naturalist, and this book shows it all. At the end, she writes, “And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory’, and my right foot says ‘Amen’.” Reading, you want to shout it out, too.