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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard writes in the great American tradition of natural history writing which is based on close observation yet interweaves philosophical ideas, poetic description and personal experience. PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK is the daily record of her life in Virginia’s Blue Ridge valley over a year. The tributary is, like Thoreau’s Walden Pond, a sanctuary where she retired from the world for a year and wrote about what she saw. The result is a wonderful, elegiac, absorbing meditation on life.

Annie Dillard says of herself that she seems to possess an organ that others lack, a sort of trivia machine, and describes her gauche attempts at party conversation:

“I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of a caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?”…..I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.”

It is this fascination with the minutiae of the natural world and her ability to convey the wonder of it that make her writing so compelling. In the first chapter she describes seeing a small green frog, half in and half out of the water, crumple and shrink like a deflating football. His innards were being sucked out by a giant water bug and it is this image, which occurs frequently in the book, that provides the catalyst for her meditation: an attempt to understand the cosmic significance of beauty and violence coexisting in the natural world and to reconcile the brute cruelty she witnessed with the possibility of a creator.

Dillard started writing this book when she was twenty-seven and it is its youthful exuberance along with the boldness of the enterprise that make it so extraordinary. PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.

Clare Chandler

Published by Harper Perennial (Modern Classics), 296pp.

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