I am writing a book on listening. Why then have I spent the past three or so weeks prostrating at the pages of a book on the natural world, on a creek in Virginia, a sharply defined account of meadows and parasitic moths and frogs and cedars?
Ambition, for one. Imitational intent. Reverence, too, and lots of it. Also: a hunger for awe. A roomy, generous container for all this and then some, and bursting with verbs: that is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Somehow I feel I owe this book more, even, than what I’ve given it so far, which is plenty of time and babbling praise and hours upon hours of handwriting its most luminous passages. I owe it, I think, an analysis with the scrutiny of a scientist (if half the rigor). Nothing could be more appropriate, really.
So. We’d have to start with the verbs. They are abundant. Overflowing. To borrow a particularly Dillard-esque term, careening. They suffuse the book with a very shimmer, so excited does it become with the preponderance of animal and botanical aliveness. Everything moves. Fitting for a book that looks in wonder at the terrors and finer edges of life, I suppose, but chapter after chapter, you never really get used to it, the way she offers the world to you as a breathing, pulsing mass of movement, heaping verbs on you but never the wrong ones, never excessive or unconsidered. The insects of Tinker Creek buzz, click, prey, and glide and take flight. So does her language.
Under my spine, the sycamore roots suck watery salts. Root tips thrust and squirm between participles of soil, probing minutely; from their roving, burgeoning tissues spring infinitesimal root hairs, transparent and hollow, which affix themselves to specks of grit and sip. These runnels run silent and deep; the whole earth trembles, rent and fissured, hurled and drained. I wonder what happens to root systems when trees die. Do these spread blind networks starve, starve in the midst of plenty, and dessicate, clawing at specks?
The sun thickens the air to jelly. It bleaches, flattens, dissolves. The skies are a milky haze — nowhere, do-nothing summer skies.
The sycamore roots “suck.” They “thrust” and “squirm” and “probe” and burgeon” and “affix” as the earth “trembles.” Do we talk of a tree? Or a critter, newly discovered, scuttling on six limbs through soil? Does the sun, too, know that it’s many talents beyond just “beaming” or “shining” are, at last, acknowledged, celebrated? What skills the animate world around us possesses! And how few of them we stop to look at, to see. Thank God for the observers—the poets.
There is a kinship here. This kinship is an ancient and maybe forgotten friendliness between man and the natural world, a shared breathing and growing and decaying, and Dillard refuses in a hundred ways to take it for granted. Observation gives way to intimacy.
If there looks to be, additionally, a theology lurking between these flights of fancy, you are not wrong. Luckily the author spares us sermon and grants, instead, curiosity. One gets the feeling that Dillard is continually gasping in awe at all there is to see beneath the seen, and wants merely, tirelessly, to point it out to us: Wow. There! Look.
Perhaps this is a truer prayer, this songbook of astonishment. The reporting from the lush field captures what proselytizing cannot. It acknowledges the slipperiness of definitive truth by firmly planting itself only in the realm of description, a description that surges on through the rhythmic interjections of delight, delight that we are here in and not just with this vast, teeming terrarium at all. This surprise is a many-faced thing, shapeshifting into thanks, to shock, often terror, even revulsion. Back again to awe. And always around a questioning.
Note the inquiry, serious but never urgent, bewildered without despair—
We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the field of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved funnels of leaf miners on the surface of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the night question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.
“What is going on here?” This refrain beats like a drum through every chapter, whether our viewing lens zooms out to behold an austere cosmos or focuses in on the tiny cities of life that crawl and dive beneath a surface layer of pondwater.
Nothing in Tinker Creek escapes the author’s questioning line of sight, this meticulous beginner’s mind: No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe, she declares, jovial. The miracle is not out there; it’s in our very backyards. In the creekwater, the sycamore leaf, the powdered wing of a monarch. Powdered wing as portal, if you should only stop to look.
The movements, the mystery. They work together. Dillard’s own mind is roving, utterly grasping to behold it all, trying on every vantage point to track the logic of creation. And is there a logic? She shifts from incredulity—we’re here!—to indignation—why? how? with a frenzy. She quotes a heard phrase:
Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”
Perhaps no one does, but marveling in this very fact for Dillard appears to be the closest means at our mortal disposal of inching closer to Beauty with an insistent capitalization.
This is just paradox of one sort. The book’s very thrust is paradox: it dances with ease between the microscopic and the galactic (“If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow”), the seen and its hidden unseen, the beautiful and the terrible and even the grotesque. The radiant cedar tree and the writhing mass of parasites and larvae that compete for earthly survival are both dealing in the transcendent. As are the “unmerited grace” of our being alive and the cruelty of the theater of life and of death into which we’re thrust.
The central spiritual paradox, however, is perhaps that everything appears at once the fruit of random chance and meticulous design, confronting us with a theology of opposites.
It’s all a jumbled, chancy affair at best, as things seem to be below the stars.
If the landscape reveals lone certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor.
There is a Something that animates. There is a Someone that sculpts, multiplies, watches proudly. Someone has piped, she says, and we are dancing a tarantella until the sweat pours. And in another passage, Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on like a pipe; our breath is not our own. The business of what or who is doing the piping and pummeling does not accompany her insistent question marks, notably. The questions are more childlike in pitch, more concerned with the why, the how come, the what for?
Dillard never shies from the big questions, questions of existence and creation and time. She entices us to look, and to look hard. We fall under the spell, gifted a new way of seeing. This is the seduction of Pilgrim.
But let’s talk about the language, too. About its sheer music, its forceful originality. Can many other writers, however skilled, pull off a nearly three-hundred page book about bugs and birds (and no other humans save the narrator, I might add!) that can enthrall in the style of a mystery novel? I’ll answer for myself: for a book to convert me from a squeamish, critter-creeped bookworm to an avid reader on the mating habits of worms is near-miraculous.
This is no small part thanks to the dizzying lyricality of her words. Hear the music—
Then I noticed white specks, some sort of pale petals, small, floating from under my feet on the creek’s surface, very slow and steady. So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale, white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. 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.
Here, the o’s and e’s ("noticed," "floating," "slow"; "feet," and "creeks") that give way to sounds of r’s and s’s ("blurred" and "world" with "silver," "stars," "scroll") create a cadence, blossoming into a poem stripped of line breaks. The "slow and steady" floating yields to a "rolling," only to end in "flashes" and a "breaking." The language of crescendo luxuriates in sonically voluptuous l’s and f’s at the end with “flesh-flake, feather, bone.”
And now the imagery. Which is the more beautiful? The shapes and contours of her real surroundings, reported back to us in breathless incantation? Or her startling metaphors plucked from the imagined realms of dream and daydream?
I open my eyes and I see dark, muscled forms curl out of the water, with flapping gills and flattened eyes. I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars bowing to deepest stars at the crown of an infinite cone.
The water is velvet. The stars, “deep” and “deeper,” are gems set on a crown against a rich and royal blue. Each body of blue descends upon the vision until they merge, wrapping together into an endless blue, the infinite blue of existence. Heaven and earth collapse, and we are at the very center, held aloft, seeing through her eyes.
I could go on. This analysis is less deconstruction, more effusion of thanks. The way I want to live my life, today and forever, is in utter awe, catching the thread of it from a book or poem, passing it along like some feverish song, until we’re all standing in the middle of it all, feeling lucky and awake. This book is not the first or last to evoke for me this wonder, a very real gratitude to be in this skin, but that it joins the procession of books that can is no small act.