The first four chapters of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek took me back to Thoreau’s “Walking,” as she heads out to walk with the passion of an addict. Neither is looking for exercise. Walking is meandering with Nature, seeking those relationships with the environment that provide meaning, companionship, or conjure up questions. Destination is not primary, and Thoreau admits, “My needle is slow to settle.”
Dillard follows him, but her observations are more raw. She sees the poetic in incidents of the death and survival of insects, frogs, grasshoppers, and waterfowl frozen in ice. Her images haunt in their detail. The poor praying mantis, a favorite of mine in the garden, will forever be changed in my mind because of her stories of its behavior. Watching an upside-down female in process of depositing eggs for over an hour, she observed, “It looked like a hideous, harried mother, slicking up a fat daughter for a beauty pageant, touching her up, slobbering over her, patting and hemming and brushing and stroking.” (p.57) This beautifully written anthropomorphosis puts the odd, angular creature in a relationship with the reader. Dillard has placed it in our human sphere. We see and know it; she creates intimacy. And then, “The male was nowhere in sight. The female had probably eaten him.” (p.57)
As if this bit of nonchalance was not startling enough, she elaborates with a strong statement of sexual superiority and power. “While the male is making up what passes for his mind, the female tips the balance in her favor by eating his head.” (p.58) A great line in nature essay writing! But the show goes on; instinct prevails. Preying mantis might be more appropriate.
Thoreau’s solitary experience, or “experiment,” was on borrowed land and on borrowed time, away from his regular life and routine. Dillard lives at Tinker Creek. We see her exploring her own neighborhood, relishing nature’s moods, reveling in its minutiae as the seasons change. Thoreau talked of getting “rusty” if he didn’t get outside. Dillard seems content to process her observations when winter closes her in. “I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.” (p.38)
Dillard, however, is not just a fair-weather wanderer. Her nose drips, her fingers freeze, and she gets muddy in pursuit. She sees things in winter that are hidden in summer. Bird nests and squirrel homes are laid bare to view and contemplation. Shadows and clouds wrap nature in different hues. I feel an urgency to Dillard’s writing. She is saddened that she has never seen a certain common larvae or the elusive green ray at sunset. (p.17) But her eyes are always open, ready.
I had to laugh at her hiding in order not to disturb birds that she wanted to watch. I, too, have become tree-like to get close enough to observe birds without scaring them off. That we can watch the natural habits of birds at close range puts us in the presence of nature’s players without being intruders. I have found myself actually holding my breath as I watched chickadees just a few feet away enjoying their thistle seed at my feeder. Dillard reminds us of the mystery of non-human life — that sharks roll in the ocean, birds dip and dive through the sky, and bees and insects do their assigned tasks, if we observe them or not.
Perhaps she gives so much detail to her observations because she is making mental imprints of what will vanish with the next blink or the next walk. Is Tinker Creek a microcosm of the greater world? Dillard “cools her eyes” in the water, the effort to be an objective observer, as she considers a creation that sucks the life out of a frog and alerts us to the “extravagance” of “flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness.” (p.9) Her landscape is reflected imperfectly in a mirror, and her recordings so far are witness to the impermanent and sometimes cruel order of things.