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Amber Paulen

A photograph showing Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on a table.

Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

23 July 2008


When I was young, well, for the whole of my formative years, I thought creek differed from crick in that creeks were generalized and what we had further down the driveway was a crick, our crick, the one and only crick. Eventually, I learned this was a pronunciation thing; the Tamarack is in fact a creek and a crick, both.

The Tamarack Creek is a well-winding creek, its two sides stroke round about our small town, its brown waters are almost rapid in some places, behind our house they move, a current in no hurry, soft reflective water like smooth plates of mirrors being pushed up by their backsides. That’s the summer. One summer a farmhand caught crayfish by the bucketful, then he went home and ate it. I was too scared to plunge into the silt-specks, which hung there in the water like gold catching light and throwing it, they would dance suspended in the perpetual movement, still as silt. One summer I jumped through the crowd and when I emerged I had leeches stuck to my body like sluggish black polka-dots; I never went back in. It was the Tamarack’s banks I liked best to explore.

I’m not trying to fool myself: the Tamarack’s no Tinker; my adolescent plunging into the natural world pales when set besides Annie Dillard’s streamlined scrutiny. Because that’s what Annie Dillard is, she’s relentless.

Oh! how I strain to imagine her tranquil position, her mental fluidity in such an immersion. I’ve always wanted that; one day I’ll do it down by the Tamarack. But for now I have an “itch”; the world sits like a little blue marble in the palm of my hand. I point to a new continent, I move there; moving always away from home.

I don’t fool myself in thinking I’ll pull out a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek from this grey gushy mass of brain, no, most likely it’ll be fiction, but who knows…

Above all and all, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book of praise; it’s like sitting in an old-fashioned pew and a man of no certain religious leaning says, “All take out your psalms.” And so you get your singing voice ready, but these little ditties were written by Annie Dillard and she wants you to trip over her words. Not the words really, but the “ideas,” she wants you to go slowly, learning how to sing as she does. What stunning poetics and what oddball facts! One must pass one sentence twice-by for sometimes the reflection off the words cause a over-white gleaming blur, like a flash, like the sun glinting off a the scales of a fleet-finned fish or a crystalized beautiful thought.

At times Annie Dillard struck me as an unquestionable descendant of the late-great illustrious Henry Miller. Like Henry Miller, she frequently mentions writers (and Eskimos) who have stolen her fancy, alas! Mr. Miller wasn’t one of them, though to a jittery surprise John Cowper Powys was. It’s not the name dropping which struck lightning from one solid grounding to another, both Henry Miller and Annie Dillard share the eloquence of bare truth, wonder in minutiae details and a penchant for sucking it “all” up as if “all” were the insides of an unfortunate frog.

The wonder is—given the errant nature of freedom; and the burgeoning texture of time—the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found, like mockingbird’s free fall. Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time.

Here it is again, the fabled “Life Abundant.” How can anyone miss this? miss it in anything, not just these words, but in the world. I don’t understand.

I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.

What Henry Miller meant by his “Life Abundant” is what Annie Dillard meant by “the tree with the lights in it.” “It was less like seeing,” she wrote, “than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” It’s this inversion of vision that seems to sneak up behind one and ring the bell cling-clang! set inside one’s gut with all energy and power afforded, energy and power the creator bestowed upon itself. The “life abundant” gives and gives abundantly, but one must wait, must have patience, practice and silence. There must be a inherent belief that the miraculous is possible; not only that it’s possible but that it’s there, all the time, every single waking second there is a magic flare sparking golds and light just waiting as we’re waiting for an open vessel to come along into which it lets itself go like a firecracker gone berserk, gone glorious. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.

Lately, it seems I’m always coming around to this. I guess that’s my pre-requisite for a great writer; first in their life they must flood over.

Besides Annie Dillard’s ballads of praise, she is in the upmost, meticulous. Maybe that’s why she’s chosen to be par for many university courses; her writing is superb, relentless. No word or idea misplaced, no “upholstery,” as Milan Kundera calls it. That this book is said to be a series of essays seems silly to me; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book manifested in the highest sense. My favorite chapters were Intricacy and Fecundity. With all fifteen there are many, many surprises. Her scientific, religious, and Arctic references left me stunned or rendered me appalled, especially that bit about parasites. This isn’t a book for the weak in spirit.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek deserves all praise for praise. Annie Dillard’s voice is like that giant water bug who sucked out the insides of a frog. She’s seen some pretty gritty stuff and swallowed, for our sake or maybe even more so for her own, regurgitated it all back up; she thought to lovely lace it in poetics and bolster it unparalleled with facts.

Go into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn and unlock—more than a maple—a universe. This is how you spend the afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

Bracciano Italia
July 2008



Commentary for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


1 On Thursday 27 September 2012 Lauren wrote:

I just finished reading this book. Its been a year and a half since I started. Part of me felt guilty for taking so long, but really, it’s like you said, “she wants you to go slowly, learning how to sing as she does.” I thought it fitting that the book comes to a close during the end of summer with winter on the horizon, like it is now. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Annie, and the bits of your experience in the Tamarack.



2 On Friday 28 September 2012 amber wrote:

Hi Lauren, Thanks so much for sharing your experience reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I suggested the book to my dad, a very busy farmer, after I had finished reading it, but the language was a bit much for him. Made me realize that this book is an acquired taste. If you haven’t already, Annie Dillard’s last novel, The Maytrees, was quiet and amazing.


3 On Friday 06 September 2013 Andrew wrote:

The “burgeoning texture of time” and I think space. One of my favorite authors. Really loved her “Teaching a Stone to Talk” too. I need to read Henry Miller now. Cool piece. May all days be as wonderous as Dillard’s writing.


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