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Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard (1945-present) studied theology and creative writing at Hollins College, near Roanoke, Virginia. She married her writing teacher, Richard Dillard, who Annie claims "taught her everything she knows" about writing. Her Masters thesis was 40 pages on Thoreau's Walden Pond. Thoreau's influence on Annie's writing of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is evident. She was awarded the Pulitzer for the book in 1975. Annie was twenty-nine at the time.

Tinker Creek was the product of a serious bout of pneumonia which struck Annie in 1971. After she recovered, Annie wanted to experience life more fully and spent four seasons living near Tinker Creek where she journaled about the surrounding forests, creeks, and mountains. Her journal reached 20-plus volumes which she transposed to notecards. It took her about 8 months to turn the notecards into the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Towards the end of the 8 months she was so absorbed that she was spending 15 hours a day writing, ignoring the outside world and living on coffee and coke. She was so absorbed in the project that she hardly ate and lost 30 pounds.

Annie hesitated about publishing her book because she was worried that a theology book written by a woman would not be well-received. Today many readers enjoy Pilgrim at Tinker Creek because it is rich in images and details. Here are some excerpts from her award-winning book:

"The sky is deep and distant, laced with sycamore limbs like a hatching of crossed swords. I can scarcely see it; I'm not looking. I don't come to the creek for sky unmediated, but for shelter. My back rests on a steep bank under the sycamore; before me shines the creek- the creek which is about all the light I can stand - and beyond it rises the other bank, also steep, and planted in trees.

I have never understood why so many mystics of all creeds experience the presence of God on mountaintops. Aren't they afraid of being blown away? God said to Moses on Sinai that even the priests, who have access to the Lord, must hallow themselves, for fear that the Lord may break out against them. This is the fear. It often feels best to lay low, inconspicuous, instead of waving your spirit around from high places like a lightning rod. For if God is in one sense the igniter, a fireball that spins over the ground of continents, God is also in another sense the destroyer, lightninbg, blind power, impartial as the atmospher. Or God is one "G." You get a comforting sense, in a curved, hollow place, of being vulnerable to only a relatively narrow column of God as air." (p. 89)

"The question from agnosticism is. Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for? Thoreau climbs Mount Katahdin and gives vent to an almost outraged sense of the reality of things of this world: "I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! - Think of our life in nature, - daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knoweth....

Sir James Jeans, British astronomer and physicist, suggested that the universe was beginning to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Humanists seized on the expression, but it was hardly news. We knew, looking around, that a thought branches and leafs, a tree comes to a conclusion. But the question of who is thinking the thought is more fruitful than the question of who made the machine, for a machinist can of course wipe his hands and leave, and his simple machine still hums; but if the thinker's attention strays for a minute, his simplest thought ceases altogether. And, as I have stressed, the place where we so incontrovertibly find ourselves, whether thought or machine, is at least not in any way simple.

Instead, the landscape of the world is "ring-streaked, speackled, and spotted," like Jacob's cattle culled from Laban's herd." (p. 144-145)


Anonymous said…
I believe the image here associated with this post is of author Nora Gallagher rather than Annie Dillard.

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