Annie Dillard (born April 30, 1945) was born Meta Annie Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She attended The Ellis School throughout her childhood and first began writing poetry while in high school there. She earned her B.A. and M.A. at the all-female Hollins University (then Hollins College) in Virginia where as a sophomore she married her writing professor, the poet R. H. W. Dillard. After nearly dying from pneumonia, Dillard began writing regular, lengthy diary entries, which would later form the basis of her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
She won the Pulitzer Prize (non-fiction) in 1975 with her first book of prose, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is an extended meditation on her observations of the natural world. Some have called it a work of mysticism or theology. This combination of observations on nature and philosophical explorations is also present in several of her other books, including For the Time Being and Holy the Firm.
From Dillard’s musings on the natural world, we learn that the main problem with contemplation is one of observation. One cannot properly describe and appraise Nature unless one truly sees it as it is. In attempting to discern the nature of Nature, Dillard grapples with the difficulty of observing Nature accurately, with the difficulty of seeing. Nature is so “wholly gratuitous,” with such an “extravagance of minutiae,” that if one wishes to see it truly, they must accept a part for the whole. As Dillard says, “I do not understand even what I can easily see. I would like to see it all, to understand it, but I must start somewhere, so I try to deal with the giant water bug in Tinker Creek and the flight of three hundred redwings from an Osage orange.”
In the first half of the book, Dillard is often seized with a kind of wild rapture, an amazement with the diversity and complexity of Nature. But such a joyful understanding would be incomplete without acknowledging the dark side of such complexity. If the world is so large, what is the place of the individual in such a world? Dillard explores this question in a chapter called “Fecundity,” the bleak response to an earlier chapter called “Abundance”:
I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and with that extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day, include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
Dillard’s concerns are existential in scope, full of religious anxiety meant to offset her earlier spiritual exuberance. Indeed, the book is somewhat religious in nature, as the title demonstrates. As a “pilgrim,” Dillard is obviously searching for some kind of religious enlightenment, some kind of connection with a mysterious God. In her “Afterword” to a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, she admits that its thematic organization was religious in origin. The first half is meant to embody the via positiva school of theological thought, in which God possesses all positive attributes. The second half, beginning with “Fecundity,” is written from the perspective of thevia negativa school, in which God is seen as unknowable, with all attributes, positive and negative, inapplicable in the face of divine mystery. This conflict is made manifest by a continuing tension between Dillard’s joy in the face of beauty and alienation in the face of bewilderment.
It is in this conflict that we find the book’s relevance to the environmental movement and, indeed, all of humanity. Nature, the environment, the natural world — whatever you want to call it — is simply so beautiful, so complex, so big (and I mean big) that the only appropriate response to it is a deep humility. Indeed, the average human being can only come away from the book chastened by its presentation of Nature’s mystifying workings. Our own synthetic, consumptive activities look cheap and shameful compared with the mechanics of a small creek. After reading Pilgrim, even the most ardent developer would probably be forced to think twice about cutting down an ancient stand of trees to pave the way for another execrable subdivision.
And all of this from one woman’s observations on the flora and fauna of a nearby creek.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “[T]he world globes itself in a drop of dew.” What we learn in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is that the world, whether it be a drop of dew or the whole of the universe, is a stunning thing — equally wonderful, equally terrible, and full of mystery.