Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

There is a reason why some books are still in print after 1500 years. They are worth reading, and they are worth reading more than once. Other books, like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, win the Pulitzer Prize for the same reason. This one is a keeper.

Annie Dillard writes with glorious detail as she wonders at the natural world. From her cabin on a creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains, she takes the time to see and think about creatures that most of us ignore. But Dillard is no romantic, and her descriptions are blunt, not gilded. Witnessing the shriveling death of a frog whose insides are sucked out by a giant water bug, Dillard wonders about the presence of God in a world of inescapable and inexplicable brutality. She does see His beauty, and she recognizes the surprising, gracious displays of His glory. Those experiences remain signposts for her sense of what is real. Yet other displays, especially among insects, are startling, even repugnant.

Annie Dillard sees life clearly and realistically, but she also sees it as a gift to be enjoyed. She embraces the tension between mourning and dancing that, according to Marilynne Robinson, is inherent to this life. She portrays it especially well in The Living, her novel about eighteenth century settlers on the Washington coast. This paragraph from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek summarizes her point of view:
Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.


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