“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published fifty years ago, is a work of nonfiction that concerns the author’s experiences in a wild region of Virginia. But the narrative ponders matters that go far beyond the locale indicated by the book’s title. More than anything else, I would say, this is a book about seeing; that is, seeing the water, the trees, the sky, the insects, the micro and the macro, the creature and the Creator.

Along with a superlative ability to see the world around her, the author could write with exceptional clarity. She was a prose-poet in the truest sense of that term, and this comes through on every page. For example:

“It is sheer coincidence that my hunk of the creek is strewn with boulders. I never merited this grace, that when I face upstream I scent the virgin breath of mountains, I feel a spray of mist on my cheeks and lips, I hear a ceaseless splash and susurrus, a sound of water not merely poured smoothly down air to fill a steady pool, but tumbling live about, over, under, around, between, through an intricate speckling of rock.”

But Dillard saw things with a truthful gaze. Nature is not sentimentalized; it is shown to be as brutal as it is beautiful. The first paragraph of the book describes a tomcat with bloodied paws that used to jump through an open window to pay the author a number of late night visits. Elsewhere she describes the voracious, sometimes cannibalistic, eating habits of the praying mantis.

In Chapter 6 (“The Present”) the author details something that happened during a stop at a gas station. The young attendant’s puppy befriends Dillard and follows her outside where she pauses, petting the animal while gazing at a nearby mountain. The mountain undergoes a mysterious transformation, along with everything else:

“This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.”

The description continues in the same vein, but what strikes me is that the author probably experienced on this occasion what Zen Buddhists call satori—that is, enlightenment. That it passed away or dimmed does not matter. It was a glimpse of a transfigured or eternalized present.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those rare books that one can keep close to and profitably peruse for a lifetime. By the power of the written word it can draw the reader into intimate communion with the natural world. More than that, it can guide one into a form of seeing that transcends the merely human, into what might be described as a participatory involvement in the very act of creation:

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).