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Observed in tooth and claw

by
08 October 2021

Rod Garner celebrates a questioning chronicler of the natural world

UPI/Alamy

Annie Dillard receives a 2014 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama

Annie Dillard receives a 2014 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama

“DAMN it; I’m going to do it, I am.” The defiance is characteristic of the early writing of the distinguished American essayist and poet Annie Dillard. The entry appears in a notebook in the late 1960s, and reflects her determination to write a substantial book on the natural world. The genre was dominated by male authors, including greats such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman; but Dillard wanted to do something different, however difficult.

She wasn’t a notable man living alone in the wild; she was an unknown college graduate student, married at the age of 20 to her former college poetry professor, and residing in the relatively peaceful suburbs of Virginia. A voracious reader, she had discovered The Northern Farm, a 1949 memoir by Henry Beston, recording an agricultural season in Maine. She disliked it, but his musings changed her life. How could he not know — as she did — how fireflies made their light through the combination of two enzymes, luciferin and luciferase? She could do better.

By the time she came to write her book, Dillard’s diary ran to more than 20 volumes, representing, in Thoreau’s memorable phrase, “a meteorological journal of the mind”. The assignment led to her working up to 16 hours a day, existing on coffee and Coca-Cola, and losing 30 lbs in the process. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published in 1974. Literary fame came quickly, along with a stream of invitations to write for Hollywood, model clothes for Vogue magazine, appear on television, and even host her own weekly show.

The offers were declined: Dillard wanted people to read the book, regardless of her gender, age, or appearance. In 1975, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. Almost 50 years on, it is widely acknowledged as a classic of natural-history autobiography.

 

THE accolades were deserved but potentially misleading. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is, at one level, an absorbing and deeply felt account of Dillard’s time alone in a valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She lives by the side of the eponymous creek. The surrounding countryside is a familiar mix of cattle, farms, meadows, rabbits, and rough pasture; but it is the creek that consumes her waking hours, her dreams and nightmares, and her diligent attention.

She is not seeking epiphanies, but there are moments when unsolicited glory bursts forth. The sight of a flock of starlings, an eclipse of the moon, or even a wild weasel enthrals her, as does the freefall of a mocking bird, and the rosy, complex light “that fills my kitchen at the end of these lengthening June days”. What she sees and closely observes is touched with joy, and a vivacity that relates a delight in simply being alive.

Along the way, she provides fascinating digressions into literature, philosophy, the natural sciences, and theology, which reveal the breadth of her understanding. Scriptural allusions pepper her reflections; and Mother Julian of Norwich, Gregory of Nyssa, from the fourth century, and Pseudo-Dionysius, from the sixth, are summoned to help her to deal with the troubling question that dominates the second half of the book.

It is here that Dillard shifts gear, putting the goodness of creation to one side to confront the ubiquitous violence, needless pain, and death that exist in the particularity of her landscape. At this point, her natural history begins to read more like the darker ruminations of Ecclesiastes, or the unceasing protests of Job.

What besets her most is the irrefutable evidence of her eyes. As she observes a small, green frog with “wide, dull eyes” barely four feet away, it begins to crumple and sag, shrinking before her like a collapsing football until only the remnants of its skin “lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water”: a grim testimony to the giant water-bug that with just one poisonous bite has reduced the frog’s body to a nutritious juice to be sucked out and consumed.

Dillard witnesses similar ugly depredations on her walks, and records them in unsettling detail. Hunger exists in the creek, as well as beauty. Animals and insects must eat. In the process, they devour their prey, their host, their offspring, their parents, and parts of themselves. Nature is complex, intricate, impossibly generous in its provision of species and forms, but also seemingly criminal in its wastefulness and indifference concerning their welfare and eventual fate.

 

DILLARD reels from this vision, at one point confessing that she “might have to reject the creek life unless I want to be utterly brutalized”. It forces on her the metaphysical question how a creation so deformed by inherent cruelty can simultaneously be the work of a divine and benevolent mind that has a care for everything that exists. The book of God, she discovers, is not easily reconciled with the raw book of Nature revealed by her forensic and insistent gaze. In the same breath, however, she acknowledges that “the world is more than a brute game . . . and there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.”

As a chronicle of solitude and a meditation on all life on earth, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek shows Dillard at her most playful, questioning, and fearless. She remains an essential and humane voice for those who find the natural world an astonishing sphere in which “moments of vision come and go, but mostly go,” leaving observers speechless in their train.


Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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