It took me seven years to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Not because it is an exceptionally long book, but because I had to grow into Annie Dillard.
I bought the book in 2007 and attempted it then, but didn’t make it much past the first 20 or so pages. I remember a frog got eaten by some bizarre water bug. I wasn’t patient enough to let my eyes adjust to a brilliant and alien prose before moving on, to slow my mind enough to drift down into the granular detail with which Ms. Dillard presented her world. Still, after that failure the book remained on the shelf, waiting and occasionally daring me to pick it up again. Perhaps this is why we buy books: so they can remain in close company and taunt us for putting them down. Still, subsequent reads fared as well as that first. And then I encountered Wendell Berry.
I received What Are People For? as a gift several months ago and was introduced to slowness—unhurried urgency. Several essays into that volume I returned to Tinker Creek and its mysteries finally opened to me, much to my pleasure. That the wonder of Dillard’s Tinker Creek and Berry’s meditations on human dignity and its place in the world harmonized so well was a nice bit of serendipity. For this reflection, though, I’ll dwell on Tinker Creek.
Annie Dillard is a theological ninja. She presents a fully-fledged wonder at this created universe both intricate and glorious and at once grotesque and broken. Her book resounds with all of the creaturely joy of Psalm 148 and the dischordant the groaning in Romans 8. Of course, Dillard is hardly so pedantic. Rather more beautifully she points to what’s out there, colliding little details and vignettes. She offers it for your heart to take hold and make of it what you will. If you are ready to see God, he is plainly there and she’ll do you no disservice by shouting so that you miss him.
This is perhaps the most satisfying quality of the book, for my appetite anyway: Dillard lets God speak for himself, or rather she simply repeats what he has said and lets it be just as hard to follow, even hard to love, as life. And often, so often, magnificent. Those with ears, let them hear.
Annie Dillard does an adroit at sleight of prose in Tinker Creek. She has a knack for turning your attention to something small, even microscopic, describing at some length its form and function. She draws you in and in to the wonder of this tiny fragment of a portion of a creature until it fills your mind and then she abruptly tugs you into a completely unexpected sphere where the tiny detail connects to staggering enormity and she pushes the border of your imagination out. She’s caught you and then you realize you had already swallowed the bait several pages earlier and Dillard had only just set the hook. She does not hurry as she lures you in.
This is why I read: to be caught up in wonder. With this book, it is the wonder of all of the stuff out there—in the world, the universe, my own back yard—that just happens without any consent or particular help to speak of from me or us. Annie Dillard illuminates the ordinary things that simply carry on in delicate yet dogged balance. In her telling, this wonderful creation reflects glorious radiance as though sustained by some powerful word of which our understanding can only touch the hem, but which our eyes absorb in ripples and waves everywhere we look. It’s wonderful.
In spite of such a breathtaking, mind-bending journey, this book still reminded me of being a boy. Of visiting my grandparents’ farm and heading out to explore acres of hilly Kentucky countryside to see what creatures I could see. Of trying to figure out how to walk in such a way as to sneak up on a frog and so see it before it leapt with a yap into the pond. Of collecting jelly-like eggs from the bottom of a rock in a creek in hope that they’d hatch and I could watch the amazing change from tadpole to salamander. Of just hoping I’d come across a praying mantis anywhere. I count as a true gift any book that makes me feel tapped into the remote wisdom of the universe and simultaneously like a child. And I’m thankful for Wendell Berry for encouraging me to slow my mind so that I might finally, after seven years of trying, open the gift of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.