Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. HarperPerennial 1998 (original 1974). Memoir/personal essay; 5/11.

Another surprising book. I picked it off the award-winner’s shelf at Chapters thinking it was fiction and was mildly disappointed it wasn’t. It was heavy going at the start and I was afraid I was back into the self-absorbed nature passages in Casey’s Lakeland, which aspire unsuccessfully to the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. But then, bam, with no warning comes a stream of free-wheeling metaphysical speculation and logic, peppered with unreferenced colloquial cultural quotes, presented as if it had been running along as a subtext the whole time. Fascinating.

People say that a good seat in the backyard affords as accurate and inspiring a vantage point on the planet earth as any observation tower on Alpha Centauri. They are wrong. We see through a glass darkly. We find ourselves in the middle of a movie, or, God help us, a take for a movie, and we don’t know what’s on the rest of the film.

In her chapter “Fecundity” she describes a dream where huge moths mate, the male at it on top “with horrible animal vigor”. She can’t take her eyes off them, “…all because I wanted to see what would happen. I wanted in on a secret. And then the eggs hatched and the bed was full of… ” horrible squirming fish with bulging eyes swimming and oozing three feet deep. She speculates:

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 that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives…

The vision of the fish was her fault for curiosity about the moths having sex. She isn’t afraid of discussing creation, and the creator, in the style of “Did He who made the lamb…”

She quotes T. S. Eliot’s widow, describing Eliot being recognized by a cab driver, who said he had an eye for celebrity, and who had also once picked up Bertrand Russell, and asked him, “What’s it all about?” And (says the driver) “do you know, he couldn’t tell me.” “Well, Lord God, asks the delicate, dying lacewing whose mandibles are wet with the juice secreted by her own ovipositor, what’s it all about? (“And do you know…”)”.

She introduces Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, quoting him: “…method and object can no longer be separated. The scientific world-view has ceased to be a scientific view in the true sense of the word” (scientists appear to agree…). This means that “… the physical world as we understand it now is more like the touch-and-go creek world I see than it is like the abiding world of which the mountains seem to speak.” A non-determinist view.

Sure, she is over the top with some of her descriptions as the critics appear troubled by, the metaphysical speculation can be criticized in all sorts of ways, and what we have is just a smart lady with time on her hands, imagination, and reading under her belt wandering around in the bush playing with ideas. But I guess the book and Dillard are famous because, in among the rest of it there are moments that made me stop and wonder at the thinking and writing like nothing else I’ve ever read. 8.8/9.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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