The tree with the lights in it

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It took many months for me to finish reading this book, as I could only manage it in small doses. Dillard writes with an intensity level that starts around 7 or 8 and cranks up to 11 by the end of each chapter, and as thrilling as that is, it can also be difficult to bear. She is a mystic of the sort who finds the divine in nature; her explorations combine close observation of her neighborhood ecosystem, reading obscure 19th and early 20th century entomology texts, and citing Heraclitus, the Desert Fathers, and Martin Buber. There is humor, in flashes, and a really stellar use of language ranging from popular (childhood rhymes and cowboy movie references) to extremely erudite phrases that will send you to the dictionary.

Overall the book’s mood is alternately tormented and ecstatic. One comes away feeling that Dillard is struggling, hard, with the aftereffects of some kind of deeply traumatic experience, of which the frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug — the book’s most disturbing, recurring motif — is just a pale reflection. Sometimes I felt her angst was arising only because she had her framing wrong and was looking at the situation backward, leading her to anguished conclusions (the chapter on “Fecundity” for instance: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.”). Other times I was grateful and amazed for her ability to describe transcendent/immanent experiences in which the self disappears and life shines forth in all its blinding presence (the chapters on “Presence” and “Stalking” for instance).

Overall, an undeniable classic of nature literature, of course, but also a reading experience I wouldn’t recommend to just anyone. Don’t come here unless you like having your hair set aflame.

Note: This overview and assessment of Dillard’s work by William Deresiewicz is useful, insightful, and sharp.

The tree with the lights in it