Generally, we think of a pilgrim as one who leaves his or her home in search of enlightenment or spiritual awakening. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard does the opposite. She stays put in her cabin by the banks of Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, and lets the natural world come to her. This reverse pilgrimage results in a book that is filled with an impassioned wonder.
Dillard is a consummate observer. She looks at the natural world and sees things that others might miss: the death of a frog sucked dry by a giant water bug, the fall of a mockingbird as it steps off the eaves of her house. In fact, much of the book is about how we see, or don’t see. As Dillard says “There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” The key though is to put yourself in the frame of mind of actually looking. Dillard goes on to note “[W]ho gets excited by a mere penny?” In many ways, the rest of the book is about ways of looking at the natural world and ways of being open to the flashes of insight that come when and where they will, not necessarily on our schedules.
Dillard has read widely across disciplines, and her book introduces readers to a host of other writers from scientists and naturalists to theologians. She is captivated by facts and information, and readers who enjoy knowing details of the lives of insects and the ways of muskrats will find an ample compilation of this sort of knowledge here. But these details are always included in support of the broader story, an inner pilgrimage that Dillard relates in lyrical and masterful prose. Annie Dillard’s writing style is at the opposite end of the nature writing spectrum from the sparse, rocky writing of Edward Abbey. But both writers share a passion for the natural world and for how the journeys that we make there can change our lives.
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