Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

Dillard’s opening anecdote of the old fighting tom leaping through the window onto her bed at night and kneading her chest while she’s half-asleep is borrowed from someone else. But the reaction to the event is pure Dillard as poet and theologian. 

“I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign or the Passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence . . . ‘Seems like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

In this opening, Dillard poses the question of the book very colloquially. Seems like we’re just set down here and don’t nobody know why. The opening also puts the reader on notice that her writing style is going to be poetic. She’s going to use words that need to be paused over and considered. And she’s going to use them abundantly in sentences with rhythm and repetition that convey feeling as much as they convey meaning. And she’s going to make lots of allusions to Scripture (just give a second glance to the quotation above as an example).

In her younger years, Dillard had turned away from organized religion because she couldn’t reconcile the easy, pious answers about Why? with the suffering she observed in the world. But in her mid-twenties, Dillard dared take a crack at answering the question of Why? herself. And she won the Pulitzer for her efforts. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the young poet took on the absolutely biggest question of all, suspecting it was impossible to answer, but daring to try.

In her year-long, up-close observation of nature along Tinker Creek, Dillard does her best to show us “here” (as in Seems like we’re just set down here . . .) in blinding color, shifting shadow, ice and heat, big and small. Animal, vegetable, mineral. She serves up details of nature both adorable (the juvenile muskrat floating past with his feet over his stomach) and ghoulish. She observes the abundance of the natural world as something not altogether positive (all those parasites and predators). And trying to draw a conclusion about the nature of God from all this, she concludes merely “the creator loves pizzazz.” –which, honestly, made me laugh. And reminded me of the Psalmist claiming God made the great leviathan just for fun.

In her poetic, abundant way, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard show us nature in which the Creator must be because He is omnipresent, so He has to be in there, right? 

But questions linger. 

And in her later book, Holy the Firm, Dillard tries to answer them. That book was written while she lived on Lummi Island, off mainland Washington, where nature is sparse. She called Lummi Island “the edge of the known and comprehended world . . . the western rim of the real . . . the fringes’ edge . . . where time and eternity spatter each other with foam—a place, in other words, where nature stops and the darkness of Divinity begins.” Or, put more succinctly: “If God is in the abundance of creation, take away creation and get a better look at God.” Or, put a bit more esoterically, perhaps Creation was the fall.

Dillard invites us on a pilgrimage to understand God. But she also quotes Augustine: “If you do understand, then it is not God.” 

Or as Anne Lamott prays at the beginning of her day: Whatever.
Seems like we’re just set down here, and don’t nobody know why.

— Sharelle Moranville

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