Notes from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Given my recent interest in the contemplative life and observing nature, a friend recommended I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It chronicles the author’s adventures and observations while living and exploring the Tinker Creek area of Virginia’s Roanoake Valley, and won the Pulitzer Prize when published in 1974.

Yet while my copy of Pilgrim is a modest-sized paperback, it took me several months to finish. More poetry than prose, the rich language and imagery made my customary quick reading difficult. Instead, I read in chunks, up to a chapter or two in a sitting but rarely more.

Another reason I split the reading up was to better savor the experience. Reading Pilgrim slowed down my world–after consuming a chapter I was always contemplative myself, and would want to go enjoy the world around me. One chapter I read while eating Indian food alone at our favorite restaurant in Berkeley. I set down the book and spent 10 minutes marveling at the beauty of the water in my glass, before taking off to wander through the woods. I took 2 hours to return the 1/8 mile to our house.

It was fascinating how simply looking more closely at the world could produce such experiences. After all, it’s the same world that blurs past as I bike, or ride the bus; the same world that sits outside the window as I work. The richness is so easily ignored; Dillard notes this late in the book, saying “how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek?” (271). As a designer, I’m realizing that experiences can only be half-designed–the other half is the person’s own responsibility to engage with and savor the experience.

Within the single theme of watching the world, the book covers a wide range of topics and perspectives. Dillard ranges from cedar trees bursting with light and color to a water bug getting its insides sucked out; from Eskimo folk tales to quantum physics. In many ways the scope, and its focus on discovering some ultimate truths, reminded me of another favorite, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The writing style is clearly influenced by her process. As described in the afterword, she collected bits from many disparate influences, put them on index cards, then tried to fit them together. Sections jump wildly between tangentially-related topics, but it reinforces the overall theme of chaotic wonder. I enjoyed the structure, actually, as it suggests what a similar collection of my divergent observations and interests might look like.

This is a rare book that I’ll keep around, something I do more with poetry than with prose or informational books. Turning to this might keep me from losing sight of the wonders that are all around. It truly is an amazing place.

My God what a world. There is no accounting for one second of it.” (267)


Our responsibility to open our eyes:

The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (10)

Nature doesn’t pinch pennies:

If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. (11)

But perhaps we should:

If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get. (17)

A book to check on: Space and Sight, Marius von Senden. About how experiencing sight for those who had been blind was entirely new; they had no conception of space, size, or sense beyond that of touch: “One patient called lemonade ‘square’ because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands” (27-8) Others hated it and wanted to go back to being blind (30)

You can’t schedule your epiphanies:

[The gift of seeing], although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. (35)

Dillard’s defining moment: the cedar tree “on fire”, which she references throughout the book.

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power…I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. (36)

While my specific experiences have been different, I resonate with that description of a peak moment when awareness is hyper-extreme.

Brilliant packaging: ladybugs are shipped in boxes of pine cones; they “naturally crawl deep into the depths of the pine cones; the sturdy ‘branches’ of the opened cones protect them through all the bumpings of transit.” (49)

Caterpillars following a silk path provide a thinly-veiled allegory to humanity…

“The caterpillars in distress, starved, shelterless, chilled with cold at night, cling obstinately to the silk ribbon covered hundreds of times, because they lack the rudimentary glimmers of reason which would advise them to abandon it.” (J. Henri Fabre, 68)

The argument that it is impossible to fully engage with the present in cities, because you’re always too aware of yourself.

Self-conciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. (82)

I’m in the market for some present tense; I’m on the lookout, shopping around, more so every year. It’s a seller’s market–do you think I won’t sell all that I have to buy it? (86)

And I thought it was just a coincidence that most people have a resting pulse around 60…

Before they invented the unit of the second, people used to time the lapse of short events on their pulses. (94)

A fun quote: “Lick a finger; feel the now.” (99)

Watching a stream flow down toward her:

I feel as though I stand at the foot of an infinitely high staircase, down which some exuberant spirit is flinging tennis ball after tennis ball, and the one thing I want in the world is a tennis ball. (102)

Botany as a moral imperative?

I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany. We may know nothing for certain, but we seem to see that the world turns upon growing, grows toward growing, and growing green and clean. (114)

Fascinating: the difference between a molecule of chlorophyll and a molecule of hemoglobin is a single atom at the center (magnesium for chlorophyll; iron for hemoglobin). The other 136 atoms are all the same. (127-8)

The great gratuitous creation:

It occurs to me more and more that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous…the sheer fringe and network of detail assumes primary importance. That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about the creation…If the world is gratuitous, then the fringe of a goldfish’s fin is a million times more so.

You are God. You want to make a forest, something to hold the soil, lock up solar energy, and give off oxygen. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to rough in a slab of chemicals a green acre of goo? (130-1)

In the eighteenth century, when educated European tourists visited the Alps, the deliberately blindfolded their eyes to shield them from the evidence of the earth’s horrid irregularity. (141)

Her dream about seeing all of time as a single “long, curved band of color”, as from some point outside time. (142) Sounds similar to a curiosity of mine.

A surplus of animals seems less appealing than one of plants; are humans any different?

Fecundity is anathema only in the animal. ‘Acres and acres of rats’ has a suitably chilling ring to it that is decidedly lacking if I say, instead, ‘acres and acres of tulips’. (167)

After observing a glob of tar covered in gooseneck barnacles, which had found it the only place to anchor in the open ocean:

How many gooseneck barnacle larvae must be dying out there in the middle of vast oceans for every one that finds a glob of tar to fasten to?…What kind of a world is this, anyway? Why not make fewer barnacle larvae and give them a decent chance? Are we dealing in life, or in death? (176)

More on the immense “waste” of nature:

Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me…we value the individual supremely, and nature values him not a whit. (178)

“When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.” – Martin Buber quoting an old Hasid master (200-1)

On the similarities between nature observances and quantum mechanics:

For some reason it has not yet trickled down to the man on the street that some physicists now are a bunch of wild-eyed, raving mystics. (205)

“The physical world is entirely abstract and without ‘actuality’ apart from its link to consciousness” – Eddington (206) – look up Eddington, by the way; another good quote on 242)

Despite the CERN Hadron Collider, we likely still won’t know everything about our world. Emerson’s prediction that “when the microscope is improved, we shall have the cells analyzed, and all will be electricity, or somewhat else” (204) seems further away now than it did then, with the discovery of quantum mechanics.

Creation itself was the fall, a burst into the thorny beauty of the real. (218-9)

As she mentions in the afterward, she jammed in lots of good quotes right at the end:

“In nature, the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be” – Huston Smith (241)

“Life’s greatest danger lies in the fact that men’s food consists entirely of souls” – Eskimo shaman (242)

“The fact is that we are painters in real life, and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe” – Van Gogh (244)

“Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love” – Simone Weil (245)

My favorite bit:

I smelled silt on the wind, turkey, laundry, leaves…my God what a world. There is no accounting for one second of it. (267)

Ezekiel’s labeling as false prophets “those who have not gone up into the gaps.” (274)

And a nice turn of phrase to cap it off:

Spend the afternoon–you can’t take it with you. (274)