Annie Dillard

A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

“Beauty and grace are performed whether we see them or not, least we can do is be there.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek contains the kind of writing that emanates from the kind of consciousness that Erich Fromm called a “state of being.” This Pulitzer Prize-winning marvel of American writing, Annie Dillard (b. 1945), gives us a spell-binding observation of nature and self at the most immediate, conscious level.

“If the day is fine, any walk will do; it all looks good.” In Virginia’s old forests, Dillard’s body, spirit and mind go for a walk.1 Dillard’s spirit spills abroad, unhitched to any sort of double-awareness that paralyses the human mind. She simply exists, walks, sees, and writes.

I’m on a little island shaped like a tear in the middle of Tinker Creek. On one side of the creek is a steep forested bank; the water is swift and deep on that side of the island. On the other side is the level field I walked through next to the steers’ pasture; the water between the field and the island is shallow and sluggish. In the summer’s low water, flags and bulrushes grow along a series of shallow pools cooled by the lazy current… Today I sit on dry grass at the end of the island by the slower side of the creek. I am drawn to this spot. I come to it as an oracle.

Blue heron. Photograph by Scott Danzig. Featured in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" in the Examined Life Library.
Blue heron. Photograph by Scott Danzig. “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” questioned Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The originality of Annie Dillard’s 1974 work owes to how much she understood that being in nature meant relinquishing our daily self-directed focus to listen and heed acts of grace.2

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through the empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white.

I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. the answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

Goldfinch. Photograph by Scott Danzig. Featured in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" in the Examined Life Library.
Goldfinch. Photograph by Scott Danzig. Danzig is a part-time filmmaker who fills any extra time in Pennsylvanian parks taking in what Dillard called “graces of nature.” Learn more.

What you will notice in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the immediacy of everything Dillard notices. It has everything to do with her observational and writing abilities. Rebecca Solnit, whose writing reminds me of Dillard’s, though Solnit’s subject is society not the lack of it – wrote “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.”

Reading Dillard’s words in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or any of her work, is to understand the power of words to convey emotion, space, place and the power of wonder to open our eyes and hearts to complexity of being, a feeling of eternal.

Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital.3 Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.

Whether you repel your full self into nature like Charles Darwin, Sylvain Tesson or Thoreau or you beckon nature into your space like, Helen Macdonald, “In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails” the point is to close down the whirling parts of yourself that respond to what Mary Oliver termed “life’s busyness” and explore what remains.

Deer. Photograph by Scott Danzig. Featured in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" in the Examined Life Library.
Deer, the kind of which requires a different type of seeing, “opening one’s palm to the present.” Photograph by Scott Danzig.

In language that echoes Walt Whitman’s epic poem of the universal, eternal, and all things flowing through time and us, Dillard writes:

I am sitting under a sycamore by Tinker Creek. I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under the trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures just as real, for whom also this moment, this tree, is “it.”

It is no mystery that Dillard believes a fallen tree, un-surrounded, will absolutely make noise. That the mystery of grace exists with or without us.4 That precise moment of “being there” is all the “there” there is.

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.

“You don’t run down the present,” Dillard concludes beautifully, “you wait for it empty-handed.”

Dillard does not define her aforementioned “spiritual geniuses” so I will gather a few of my own. Read openhanded Marcus Aurelius on a “universe-worthy life; poet Ranier Maria Rilke on being within one’s self, and Maya Angelou on forgiveness and love and Simone Weil on the purity of heart.

Illustration of Annie Dillard for Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" in the Examined Life Library.