Craft talk #3, The tone of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” by Annie Dillard.
A short craft essay by Michael Allen:
Having been a lover of all things Transcendental for a few decades, I can’t believe this classic book slipped past me. It was nothing short of a treasure chest for me, so much so that I listened to it three times in a row non-stop on Audible while driving across the country. Rich in insight and lyrical prose, it is exactly what I was trying to describe when I mentioned “lyrical essays,” to a mentor-friend of mine, regarding what I wanted to read for my MFA in non-fiction.
The book is consistent in its meandering, praiseful, almost child-like fascination with nature. Just about every important philosophical and spiritual topic a human being could wonder about is on the table. In all its mystery and grandeur, it feels as plot-less as nature seems to be. Throughout the book, Dillard gracefully acknowledges the wonder and spontaneity of creation in nature, as well as the horror and cruelty, with unwavering praise.
“The great hurrah about wild animals is that they exist at all, and the greater hurrah is the actual moment of seeing them. Because they have a nice dignity, and prefer to have nothing to do with me, not even as the simple objects of my vision. They show me by their very wariness what a prize it is simply to open my eyes and behold.”
Because of all the Thoreau-like insightfulness, which I have long been a fan of, it took a second reading for me to notice the consistent tone. Thoreau was inquisitive, but he could at times sound cynical, like when he pointed out the arrogance of one of his neighbors naming a pond after himself. Or, especially in his famous essay, On Civil Disobedience.” But Dillard’s book (or collection of essays depending on who one talks to) doesn’t slide into pointed criticism. Even though she does make some counter-arguments here and there, it’s more like she’s dancing with the topics. The book feels to me like a long prayer on what it’s like to “simply open my eyes and behold.” It’s the beholding that never seems to end, even when the author realizes the frog she’s been staring at has had its insides sucked out by a giant water bug.
I think the tone of the writing in this book alludes to what I’ve heard called a “monistic” view of the world, where both sides of the coin of nature and god are seen as noble and praiseworthy, necessary and incomplete, one without the other. And in the last sentence, it’s as if the entire year Dillard spent at Tinker Creek, described so beautifully with such poetic eloquence, gets funneled into the very last word:
“And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”
“Praise,” is the tone throughout—a long prayer for praise.