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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard showed up on Facebook one day. Not the real deal, merely a notice that it was her birthday. But that was enough to send me down memory lane, recalling how much I enjoyed reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek all those years ago. It was time to visit Tinker Creek again.

In fact, I thought I’d borrow Dan W.’s idea of reviewing the classics, and start a series of reviews of environmental classics. So:

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published in 1974, and the next year won its author, who was but twenty-nine, a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Reading it almost forty years later was great fun–and very familiar. Familiar as in family, because I saw the source, or at least a source, of the styles and structures of a great many members of the family of environmental writers that has grown since Tinker Creek was published.

Familiar, too, because I discovered bits that had worked their ways into me since I first read Tinker Creek in the ‘80s. (Caution: shameless plug ahead.) During the writing of A Kansas Bestiary, Doug Hitt and I had several conversations around the importance, to us, of the idea of mystery. Near the start of Ms. Dillard’s narrative, she says, “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery.” Also appealing to one who thinks environmentalists often take themselves too seriously, the first chapter is titled “Heaven and Earth in Jest.” Starting a pilgrimage packing jest and mystery is notable, and, sure enough, right away is a mysterious yet laughable scene of a mockingbird who thought nobody was watching. This then prompts one of the best lines ever: “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

For the rest of the book Annie Dillard, pilgrim, tries to be there, walking daily with no mission other than seeing. Muskrats are stalked. Frogs take off “in dire panic.” Newts are deemed “altogether excellent creatures, if somewhat moist.” Mantises and moths are mooned over. A mosquito sucks the blood of a copperhead. Our pilgrim suffers a barrage of grasshoppers. But one doesn’t win a Pulitzer with a mere inventory of the observed. Word is, Annie Dillard also spent months in the library, and it shows.

Dillard has been compared to Thoreau—Ed Abbey called her Thoreau’s true heir—but I don’t see it. She begins her book awestruck and laughing at the constant mystery of an ever-changing creek; his famous book starts with economy, carefully counting the pennies spent on his shack by the pond, grousing that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Her spirit, patience, and unflagging inquisitiveness quickly win over the reader, whereas it takes a while to warm to Henry, if indeed one ever does.

Witness the grasshopper barrage: in the meadow, “every step I took detonated the grass. A blast of bodies like shrapnel exploded around me; the air burst and whirled… They clattered around my ears, they ricocheted off my calves.” Then come two pages on the natural history of locusts (stressed grasshoppers, in fact), then it’s back to the meadow, playing hide and seek with the hoppers, ecstatically acting like a kid: “I am King of the Meadow, I thought, and raised my arms. Instantly grasshoppers burst all around me.”

So thank you social media, for sending me back to Tinker Creek. As Ms. Dillard said, “What a prize it is simply to open my eyes and behold.”

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