Nonfiction Classic: A “Young Writer’s Book” on the Natural World

Book review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (Amazon / Book Depository)

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 … 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.

Those lines open Annie Dillard’s 1972 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I knew immediately that this piece of writing, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was going to have a great impact on me, as it has so widely in the decades since its release.

It’s difficult to categorize – it’s memoir, to some extent, although Dillard only reveals herself through her observations of the natural world and the philosophical thoughts it inspires. In an afterword she admits that she didn’t want to identify her gender when publishing, well aware of a tendency among men not to read the work of women writers.

This struck me as a remarkable achievement – to write something that’s somehow deeply personal, yet could leave readers unsure about the author. I appreciated it more because as much as I love memoir, I’ve read many that are ostensibly about a specific event or external topic but spent more time navel-gazing or dissecting relationships than forming thoughts about bigger ideas or the incident at hand. Considering this, Dillard’s work, personal and universal as it manages to be, is even more impressive.

It’s nature writing but, speaking as someone who’s so-so on nature writing, it’s not the kind to avoid if you aren’t enthusiastic about the genre. It doesn’t get impossibly bogged down in metaphor and the metaphysical, although those are used. She weaves in scientific ideas, ecology, biology; in addition to psychology and philosophy, and most affectingly, the simplistic power of mere observation. She observes, “a transparent eyeball” as she calls it, and tries to make sense of it. “Perhaps … I might write about the world before I got tired of it,” as she explains her motivation in the afterword, along with calling this a young writer’s book, an idea I’ve been thinking about often since reading it.

The foundation is that Dillard was living in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, and she was young and curious about everything – the natural world around her and the academic writings on philosophy, literature, religion she consumed. She has enviable patience, sitting quietly by the side of the water for hours, watching the tiny, intricate movements of life and nature busily working around her.

The observations that come from this, which she applies to greater ideas of life, our place in the world, or marveling at how wonderfully, almost incomprehensibly complex that world is, are a treasure.

It’s lyrical, thought-provoking, and written in a voice so strong and distinct that it lingers in your mind. I won’t pretend that I grasped every reference or idea she proposes, especially as they’re sometimes couched in a dreamy but beautiful and surprisingly focused style of language, which makes it easy to get lost in the loveliness of the words and images she’s conjuring, and a little more difficult to focus exclusively on the references.

At times scenes could be from a nature documentary, as she documents the behavior of insects, pond life, the seasonal cycles of the forest. There’s so much humor too, a testament to her writing that she can smoothly switch topics and seamlessly blend so many different thoughts and ideas, both serious and light, together. “Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another,” and “There are so many parasitic wasps that some parasitic wasps have parasitic wasps,” were favorites.

This was a book that even while reading, I knew I would be reading many times. Not only because there’s too much to absorb in a single read, but because I want to understand it better and I think it’s the type of text that lends itself to different interpretations and perceptions depending on your mindset when you come to it, where you are in life, what you’re looking for.

Some favorite lines (too many but a fraction – I can’t remember marking a book up so much):

“The cat and our rites are gone and my life is changed, but the memory remains of something powerful playing over me.”

“Today I sit on dry grass at the end of the island by the slower side of the creek. I’m drawn to this spot. I come to it as to an oracle; I return to it as a man years later will seek out the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm.”

“The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all.”

“All that summer conceals, winter reveals.”

“I’m getting used to this planet and to this curious human culture which is as cheerfully enthusiastic as it is cheerfully cruel.”

“It was a clear, picturesque day, a February day without clouds, without emotion or spirit, like a beautiful woman with an empty face.”

“It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale.”

“Several years ago our October woods would have made a dismal colored photograph for a sadist’s calendar: a killing frost came before the leaves had even begun to brown; they drooped from every tree like crepe, blackened and limp. It’s all a chancy, jumbled affair at best, as things seem to be below the stars.”

“I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories.”

“But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights.”

“Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people—the novelist’s world, not the poet’s. I’ve lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year…I’ll start living; next year…I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
published 1972

Amazon / Book Depository

25 thoughts on “Nonfiction Classic: A “Young Writer’s Book” on the Natural World

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  1. I put this book on my shelf many years ago and have no memory of why. I’m sure it’s because one of my more literary friends recommended it and I may just own the book. It might have been a book club selection. I digress.

    Being a plot and character driven reader, I’m impatient with books that want me to be more reflective, treasuring the words over reaching some point or deduction. Thank you for your beautiful review of a lovely book. It reminded me of how much I love words and expressions. I don’t have to consume this book in consecutive sittings. I can just pick it up whenever I’m in that place where the need for contemplation strikes. It’ll be okay if it takes me a year to finish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely understand, that’s why we love good stories and you definitely have to be in the right mood for something like this. But I think it ends up being so helpful in what it tells you about yourself and how you might see the world. It felt so quietly insightful and worthwhile and just enjoyable, even if there’s no linear narrative or even a story structure.

      And you’re so right, it’s the PERFECT book for picking up and dipping in and out of when you feel in the right place for it and no need to rush it. Or just to read in a meditative way. I love when you rediscover one you’ve had and I hope you’ll try it out soon! Thanks for your thoughtful comment, would love to hear your thoughts on it if you try it out 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review and selection of passages! Annie Dillard is so quotable. I’m also not the biggest fan of nature writing, which is often too descriptive and detached from everyday life for my tastes, but there’s something about Dillard’s style that’s just so engaging, from her lucid prose to her thought-provoking ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I felt like I was throwing in too many quotes but I hoped her tone and style would speak to someone else who’d appreciate it as much. I just loved her writing style, it was completely engaging and immersive, and not at all what much of my experience with nature writing has been. Can you recommend anything else by her? I saw that she’s got a few other nonfiction titles but I’m not sure what to pick up of hers next.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I enjoyed An American Childhood, a memoir of her unconventional childhood, and The Writing Life! I’m not a big fan of “craft” books either, since they’re so often general, but her thoughts about the writing process are really interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Sorry for my slow reply – I’m also not crazy about books on craft but I think I’d be willing to try anything that she’s written after enjoying this one so much. And I realized that I’d bought an ebook copy of An American Childhood forever ago, so I’m really excited for that one. Thanks for the recommendations!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, exactly! And this just feels SO different than other nature writing I’ve read and been annoyed by so I think it could be the same for you! It was really lovely and just gave me so much to think about and was still somehow just fun to read. It felt so lively while still being meditative and thoughtful.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I adore this book; as you describe so evocatively, it is a book that lingers and resonates, like a slow running creek burbling in the back of the mind. It had a profound effect on me when I read it; it’s so much deeper than just a book of nature writing. As you say, hard to describe and explain but it feels extraordinary.
    If you liked this, I think you will probably love The Snow Leopard. Both books which are subtly more than the sum of their parts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear you adored it too, and that it had a profound effect on you as well. I have to say I really wasn’t expecting it to have that kind of effect on me! And that’s the perfect description, it just resonates and stays with you, always running in the background. It kept popping into my head when I wasn’t reading and since I’ve finished – it gave me so much to think about and I love that.

      I’m even more excited to read The Snow Leopard now hearing that…thank you again for that recommendation and so well put – “subtly more than the sum of their parts”, I love that! I’ll be on the lookout for a copy of it and get to it soon, I’d love to discover more writing like this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will get my thinking cap on because I have definitely encountered other similar books. Off the cuff: A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter; Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson; Findings by Kathleen Jamie. Anything by Dillard. She is awesome.

        Liked by 1 person

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