You know those books where you start reading and there, in the very first pages, is a phrase you just have to underline or copy out? It’s so perfectly done, you need to honor it. But then you keep reading, and just a page later, there’s another perfect sentence. And then another. Now you’re underlying something on every page. But you’re no longer a young man. You don’t have time to underline the whole goddamn book. So you give up on the underlining because this thing is just so goddamn well done there’s no point in highlighting just a section or two.
You know those kind of books? Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books. It is an extended mediation on nature as seen through Dillard experience living in semi-rural Virginia and it is awesome. Usually, meditations on nature aren’t my thing, but this one was so gorgeously written* that I couldn’t resist. Here’s a good bit:
I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.
That’s pretty good, right? I think that’s pretty good.
The prose of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek blew me away, and the subject matter (reflections on nature, and man’s relationship thereto, basically) got me thinking.
As we (and by we I guess I really mean I) become a more and more an industrialized creature, it seems we idealize the natural world and its wonders more. In my Brooklyn apartment, I find myself watching nature documentaries and dreaming of running courses deep in the mountains. I read about Dillard witnesses a flood at Tinker Creek and I’m a bit jealous.
Of course, there is a reason for this. The natural world is wondrous (Dillard has a passage about the praying mantis that will just blow you mind) and our fantasies of it can be a soothing balm after a long commute home from the office on an overcrowded four train.
But nature is also, to me, and many others, incredibly foreign. Living near a creek in the woods is something reserved for those with second homes and the shrinking populace of the rural poor. Everyone else is crammed into cities and cul de sacs where we witness not the wonders of the ingenious muskrat (another awesome Dillard vignette), but the feats and foibles of our fellow men. And these things too can be as fascinating and horrifying as the mating of a praying mantis. Isn’t this worth some exploration as well?
Can’t we learn something from close observation of the man made world around us?
I think so. I think I might try.
*Some might say this one was overwritten, and I see there point. There were times when I thought, “Oh stop it, Annie, you’re just showing off”. In her afterword Dillard basically admits this — that’s Pilgrim is the book of a young person determined to show her chops. That she does. This woman can write.