Monday, September 7, 2015

Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

There are few things in life I hold more dear than maintaining a sense of place.  That is one reason Jennifer and I chose back in 1993 to build our home on what was once part of a large farm in my family.  I had played in the nearby fields and forests as a kid and I felt completely at peace with the view from our front porch, which (at that time) remained unchanged since I was a child.

Now things are a bit different.  Old houses and barns have long sense been bulldozed.  New homes and barns are in their place, along with nearby suburbs with hundreds of houses. But, suburbia's massive sprawl has never reached the several hundred acres around our property.  So, comparatively speaking, the land and its surroundings has not significantly changed.  

My woods have matured, my fields have been somewhat transformed by Jennifer's gardens and our tree plantings. Many pine and oak trees have volunteered and grown naturally through what was once a mulched open garden of flowers and shrubs. Those now long dead.  These trees that grew from our mulch are now at least 15-20 years old. Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, I still live surrounded by farmland (there are more cows and chickens than people), among people who appreciate agrarian values.

So, it was with this fundamental sense of place that I connected most in a recent rereading of the 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning book by Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This is a book I added to my library after I married Jennifer back in the late 1980's.  It was recommended to me by her parents and Jennifer simply couldn't believe I had not read it. In that sense it is a gift to me from my wife. 

I really have no idea what caused me to pick it up recently and wander through its glorious, Thoreau-like pages.  I took it to Destin in July but never touched it.  I began reading it a couple of weeks later at Dreamlake.  I was surprised by the ease of its prose.  In my mind I remembered it to be more difficult to read.  Instead it was like slipping on a comfortable pair of old running shoes.  It was a perfect fit and it just felt great.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is nature writing at its best, part scientific, part stream of consciousness, part poetry of the moment connecting with the small occurrences and daily rhythms of a specific natural yet trivial geographical space. In this case it is the region around Tinker Mountain in Virginia but it could be anywhere.  The magic of a great work of natural writing is not in the specific details of nature in the space, but in how it makes you feel and how well you can connect the book's space with your own experiences in your own space.

Annie Dillard has a wonderful way with words and wide range of knowledge to draw upon.  She possesses a command of language and botany along with a love of naturalism and instinct for finding the poetic in the fullness of the simplicity around Tinker Creek.  If you have a sense of place or at least understand it in the terms I have expressed above then Dillard speaks your language. She makes you feel and see and hear and smell the world she inhabits there.

Though she is certainly not a hermit like Thoreau, Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek contains very few passages about other people and even fewer exchanges of dialog.  Quotation marks are not a common feature of the book.  Instead, she offers the splendid inner-play of her ideas and inspirations as they spring quite naturally out of her interaction with the land, chiefly woods in the foothills around Tinker Creek. Here are some prose samples:

"I am absolutely alone.  There are no other customers.  The road is vacant, the interstate out of sight and earshot.  I have hazarded into a new cover of the world, an unknown spot, a Brigadoon. Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights.  I have never seen anything so tremulous and live." (page 78)

"The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone....No, the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it." (page 79)

"Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present.  It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest.  So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its broad feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or bill tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree.  But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities - looking over my own shoulder as it were - the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown.  And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases.  It dams, stills, stagnates.

"Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies.  It is a glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people - the novelist's world, not the poet's." (page 81)

"There must be something wrong with a creekside person who, all things being equal, chooses to face downstream.  It's like fouling your own nest.  For this and a leather couch they pay fifty dollars and hour?...Look upstream.  Just simply turn around; have you no will?  The future is a spirit, or a distillation of the spirit, heading my way.  It is north.  The future is the light on the water, it comes, mediated, only to the skin of the real and present creek.  My eyes can stand no brighter light than this; nor can they see without it, if only the undersides of leaves." (page 101)

"Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and a mockingbird singing.  My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning?  It's not that they know something we don't; we know much more than they do, and surely they don't even know why they sing.  No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question.  It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing.  If the mockingbird were chirping to us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would only be slightly less irrelevant.  The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?  I hesitate to use the word so baldly, but the question is there.  The question is there because I take it as a given, as I have said, that beauty is something objectively performed - the tree that falls in the forest - having being externally, stumbled across or missed, as real and present as both sides of the moon." (page 106)

"I stood in the Lucas Meadow in the middle of a barrage of grasshoppers.  There must have been something about the rising heat, the falling night, the ripeness of the grasses - something that mustered this army in the meadow where they have never been in such legions before.  I must have seen a thousand grasshoppers, alarums and excursions clicking over the clover, knee-high to me.

"I had stepped into the meadow to feel the heat and catch a glimpse of the sky, but these grasshoppers demanded my attention, and became an event in themselves.  Every step I took detonated the grass. A blast of bodies like shrapnel exploded around me; the air burst and whirred." (page 207)

"There was a little hollow in the woods, broad, like a flat soup-bowl, with grass on the ground.  This was the forest pasture of the white mare Itch. Water had collected in a small pool five feet across, in which gold leaves floated, and the water reflected the half-forgotten, cloud-whipped sky.  To the right was a stand of slender silver-barked tulip saplings with tall limbless trunks leaning together, leafless.  In the general litter and scramble of these woods, the small grazed hollow looked very old, like the site of druidical rites, or like a theatrical set, with the pool at center stage, and the stand of silver saplings the audience in thrall.  There at the pool lovers would meet in various guises, and there Bottom in his ass's head would bleat at the reflection of the moon." (page 250) 

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a journey through winter, spring, summer and autumn, a single year's march through time and nature and place by a writer of gifted prose.  The book is a rare and wonderful reading experience, one that works just fine reading intensely over morning coffee or casually picking up and skimming a few paragraphs from your bedside table. It nails my own feelings and understanding of my own countryside property and gives voice to my otherwise speechless wonder and gratefulness.  Annie Dillard opened my mind to possibilities of personal articulation that I had not considered and, to that extent, it is one of a handful of books that have most influenced my life.

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