pilgrim at tinker creek/ annie dillard

Given our current view of the biosphere as permanently disfigured and irreversibly ruined by human greed and arrogance, it can be hard to read Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Even though Dillard is a born naturalist, identifying every leaf and insect with scientific precision, her delight in the natural world is unencumbered by the pall of global warming, the Native-American genocide, the poisonous zero sum game of ecological politics. Instead we are immersed in a world unto itself, a world in which a muskrat sighting is revolutionary and the loss of a praying mantis cocoon is cause for sorrow. It’s a far cry from the sixth extinction, polar melt, and carbon footprints.

But great essays aren’t simply documentary reports from the field; they’re also eruptions of desire carried out in the face of everything we think we know. It’s not just what Dillard sees, it’s also what the pilgrim imagines: that the natural world exists in the present tense, that insight is possible beyond the knowledge represented by scientific facts, that we might glimpse our souls on the shimmering surface of a creek. Mixing the melodious prose of her observations with the near biblical cadences of her interior responses, Dillard expands her ecological patch into a world-making project that entangles American transcendentalism, Virginia weather, and the microscopic life of a compromised yet resilient creek. This is the new world of Dillard’s imaginary pilgrim.

Like all pilgrims, Dillard’s makes a conscious choice to leave the land of headline news behind in order to enter a different mode of being, a mode in which the short life of a blue gill and the violence of insects have both presence and meaning. In this world, our vicious avarice and venal self-absorption give way to a more humble and compelling sense of reality. The idea that changing our attention is the first step to changing the world isn’t new, but it’s a crucial proposition for writers, artists, and pilgrims of any and all variety. Annie Dillard’s pilgrim is no more and no less than an embodiment of this proposition. In the end, the pilgrimage to Tinker Creek isn’t a journey to solitude or wilderness; it’s a series of walks made in the service of imagination, a transferable revelation of the hope nesting in human desire: to live in harmony, to live simply, to live in contact with the infinite.