book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

reviewed by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Annie Dillard’s account of one year spent exploring her own back yard and woods. She follows the seasons, investigating Winter, Spring, Summer, then Fall. Her descriptions of a preying mantis eating her mate during sex, a tree filled with lights, a water bug eating a frog, and grasshoppers becoming locusts are graphic and even horrific. Her examinations of pond water under a microscope are meticulous. Her observations are often scientific and accompanied by remembrances of biological studies or strange bits of relevant information, like the wave particle theory.

This book, however, isn’t foremost concerned with these scientific details. It’s concerned with the act of observation itself. Dillard is teaching us to see. She wants us to be totally immersed in the present, because some day soon “we die and are put in the earth forever” (Jack Gilbert).

It’s difficult to annotate this book without referencing Dillard in every sentence – that’s because she teaches us to observe by opening her own mind and sharing what she’s seen. In particular, the writer reading her narrative can see how her earthy observations translate to philosophy and then to literature. For example:

“The point I want to make about the snakeskin is that, when I found it, it was whole and tied in a knot… The knot had no beginning… Intently, then, I traced the knot’s lump around with a finger: it was continuous. I couldn’t untie it any more than I could untie a doughnut…

Time is the continuous loop, the snakeskin with scales endlessly overlapping without beginning or end, or time is an ascending spiral if you will, like a Slinky…

The power we seek, too, seems to be a continuous loop. I have always been sympathetic with the early notion of a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander – and when he is “there” he is surely not here. You can shake the hand of the man you meet in the woods; but the spirit seems to roll along like the mythical hoop snake with its tail in its mouth… This is the hoop of flame that shoots the rapids in the creek or spins across the dizzy meadows; this is the arsonist of the sunny woods: catch it if you can.”

The pilgrim shouldn’t stand at a distance from life and dictate an overarching philosophy that finitely pulls all the corners of the world together. In the world’s intricacy there’s chaos. The chaos theory wasn’t public knowledge when this book was written, but Dillard subscribes to the same principles. The Water Words Dictionary defines the chaos theory as: the theory that “any uncertainty in the initial state of the given system, no matter how small, will lead to rapidly growing errors in any effort to predict its future behavior.” Dillard’s world, built on narrowly defined animal behaviors and an understanding of God, still has unpredictable ends that are often cruel and seemingly “unjust,” but are just as often miraculous. The open-eyed pilgrim will be surprised by life again and again – in one moment someone will eat her mate and in the next a baby will float downstream, on its back, scratching his belly in the sun.

Dillard is clear that nature isn’t the only observatory available for discovering more about nature, God, and ourselves, but I agree with her – it’s my favorite. Her precise accountings of species or bark or bacteria are sometimes a bit boring, but in the end the payoff is big. We see the gothic, yet beautiful, world her bizarre anecdotes and odd facts create only when our full concentration is on the present moment.

In this book she gives the best definition of innocence that I’ve ever read, and I think the maintenance of our innocence is key to the kind of observation the book promotes:

“What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.”

Because of this, a good writer cannot stand before a story and say, “so be it.” The story has its own life and its own chaos. We can only stand unself-consciously in it, not above it or near it, and record what we find there. Some common threads will surface of their own accord.

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Camille Renshaw is from Nashville, TN, where she also completed her graduate work in English at Vanderbilt University. An avid hiker, she had just returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail when her first poems in Pif Magazine were published. Camille later became managing editor of Pif Magazine.