An impish spirit
Robert Macfarlane sings the praises of Anne Dillard, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Saturday April 30, 2005
In 1971, after a near-fatal attack of pneumonia, Annie Dillard moved to Tinker Creek, a valley
in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She lived alone there for four seasons, in a house
"clamped to the side" of the valley, "facing", as she put it, "the stream of light pouring down". A
year into her time at Tinker Creek, Dillard began to keep a diary: a "meteorological journal of
the mind", in Thoreau's wonderful phrase.
The journal soon ran to over 20 volumes. She transposed the entries onto thousands of note
cards and then, for eight months, wrote the note cards up into a book. Towards the end of the
eight months, Dillard was working for up to 16 hours a day. She lived mainly on coffee and
Coke, and lost 30 pounds in weight. The plants in her house died.
Dillard's Virginian valley isn't particularly wild country. There are farms, outbuildings,
barbed-wire fences. Steers graze the meadow, rabbits fossick the scrub. A felled sycamore
trunk serves as a bridge to the grassy island which sits in the middle of the creek. Sassafras
and ivy thrive in what she nicknamed "the weedfield" — a few acres of rough pasture. Down by
the road, beat-up beer-cans roost in the bushes. The mountains which close off the valley's
head are not nobly named: Brushy, Dead Man, McAfee's Knob.
Hardly the landscape, one would think, to yield a classic of nature writing. Yet Dillard's
wanderings in and around her valley issued, eventually, into her great theological-pastoral-
evolutionary-tragic-metaphysical-almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won a Pulitzer
Prize in 1975.
American literature has long had an affection for parochialism - the intense concentration on
the local - as an artistic approach. Geographical boundaries, according to this tradition, do not
fetter the literary imagination, but magnify its powers. Rummaging the close-at-hand will
always turn up beauty and wisdom. Thoreau, the greatest American parochialist, liked to
remark that he had "travelled widely in Concord, Massachusetts". Dillard did the same in
Tinker Creek, Virginia.
Dillard's little valley — with its clouds, fences, bullfrogs, giant water-bugs, houses, red-tailed
hawks; with its messy entanglement of the human and the natural - allowed her to say all she
needed to say about some very big questions. In prose that was at once vernacular and
visionary, she set out "to tell some tales and describe some of the sights of this rather tamed
valley, and explore, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy
fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead".
This migration from the particular to the general, from the "tamed" to the "dizzying", is the
constant action of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Look, Dillard urges throughout, just look again at
details, and you will find yourself dazzlingly surrounded by the four powers of the natural
world - "mystery, death, beauty, violence". Open up to the landscape's particularity, and you
will suddenly find yourself "sailing headlong and breathless under the gale force of the spirit".
Dillard's style, indeed, is spirited and gale-force. Not for her the vespers hush of worshipful
nature-prose, the mahogany pew-polish of sentences. She raps out her opinions; lyrical,
gleeful, cymbal-clashing, peppery, straightforward. "Trees stir me. I want to think about trees,"
begins a paragraph in Pilgrim, characteristically. "There are seven or eight categories of
phenomena worth talking about, and one of them is the weather", starts another. Describing a
canoe trip through the remote Napo River system in Ecuador, she notes that: "Piranha fish live
in the lakes, and electric eels. I dangled my fingers in the water, figuring it would be worth it".
It's her in a sentence - impulsive, curious, impish.
Dillard is not, like many nature writers, an epiphany-hound. Nature is sometimes
comfortable, sometimes beautiful, sometimes boring, sometimes irritating — and it's important
to say which. "You greet the daylight and the open space, and spend the evening picking burrs
out of your pants," she writes of an area of fallow fields and wooded ridges. So it is that
opening a book by her can feel like drawing up a chair next to her at a bar.
In her collection of essays, Teaching A Stone To Talk, she describes her first sight of the
Alaskan Arctic: "I stood on the island's ocean shore and saw what there was to see: a pile of
colorless stripes. Through binoculars I could see a bigger pile of colorless stripes". This
sounds like irreverence, a contrarianism, a refusal to be impressed. It's not - it's just a tell-it-
like-it-is brassiness. If you think deciduous woods perform "a striptease" each autumn, or that
when sunshine falls on a hillside it "comes on like a streetlight, ping!", or that "mountains are
great stone bells; they clang together like nuns," you must say so.
And by the same logic, if a glint of light on a barbed wire fence, or the synchronised turn of a
flock of starlings, or an eclipse of the moon, or a glance swapped with a weasel, knocks you
across the room with its beauty, then you must say so too:
Weasel! I had never seen one wild before. He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled
ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert. His face was fierce, small and pointed as a
lizard's; he would have made a good arrowhead ... Our look was a bright blow to the brain, or a
sudden beating of brains ... It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and
drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of our eyes.
Moments such as this happen all the time in Dillard's writing: moments where the natural
world streams through her, and she through it. There is a continual process of exchange; or, to
use John Donne's word, interinanimation. And this is the greatest lesson of Dillard's prose:
that we do not live separately from the natural world, but are part of it. She writes against the
heresy of aloofness; what John Gray has called "the humanist belief in human difference" - the
idea that humans are a separate, unnatural order of life, the sub-Sartrean belief that we are
It's for this reason that Dillard speaks unashamedly, comfortably, of the spirit, and how it is
accommodated by, extended by, animated in, landscape. "You can heave your spirit into a
mountain, and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will."
"What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to
Dillard's is a naïve vision, of course, and deeply beguiling for it. The best thing is her glee, a
pied-piperish glee at being in the world, which she evokes better than anyone else: "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." When
Dillard is in such a mood, it's hard not to follow her recommendation that, on an "excellent"
day, you go out for a walk, and "take huge steps, trying to feel the planet's roundness arc
between your feet".
It was while writing about Mount Katahdin that Thoreau wrote that nature might not be a
friend of humans.