Annie Dillard loves mantises. And muskrats. And frogs. And puppies. Okay, duh on that last one—who doesn't love puppies? She is not, however, a fan of giant, venom-spitting, innard-sucking water bugs.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—published in 1974 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1975—chronicles a year Dillard spent in a cabin in the woods in Virginia's Roanoke Valley, all by her lonesome, observing a ton of wildlife. Yes, including those terrifying water bugs. And poisonous snakes.
The idea for the book came, in part, from Dillard's study of Neoplatonic Christianity, which suggested two opposing routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers who favored the former believed that God was omniscient and good—you know, the stuff you hear in church. Those who favored the latter, however, believed that God was unknowable, which made anything man said about God untrue. The key to glimpsing divinity, they said, was to look at creation and weed out everything that wasn't God. So, you know, roll up your sleeves.
Dillard decided to try her hand at both approaches, and divided her book into two parts accordingly. The second half, as you might expect, is decidedly darker.
Though Pilgrim at Tinker Creek brought Dillard an unwanted level of fame—she refused a book tour and interviews, and wanted to publish it as A rather than Annie—she was delighted when a reviewer called her "one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th century." And make no mistake: This is a horrifying book. When you go searching for God through the lens of creation, you end up seeing some pretty messed-up stuff, like a bug eating a bug eating a bug…or a mosquito sucking on a snake's head.
Written in part as homage to Henry David Thoreau, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a slow, meditative book about nature, God, and awe. We're not going to lie: There's no plot to speak of, and when you get to the five-page passages about Eskimos and caterpillars, you might find it a bit of a slog.
But there's a reason English teachers have been assigning this read for decades, and it's not just to torture you. With its meditations on consciousness, creation, and cruelty—not to mention its dense, poetic writing—Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books that will make you see the world differently for the rest of your life. And if nothing else, you'll definitely never forget the part about the water bug.
Most of us occasionally fantasize about escaping humanity and holing up by ourselves for a year with a giant stack of books. But Annie Dillard? Well, she actually did it.
All it takes is five minutes on social media to realize that humans are surface-level creatures. A scroll through the average friends feed involves the following: selfies, pictures of people's dinners, statuses about the awesomeness of current boyfriends/girlfriends and/or the lameness of ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and more selfies. We get so caught up in documenting life that we forget to experience it, as evidenced by the number of smartphone screens in every picture of every concert and sporting event.
Way back in the dark ages of 1974, Dillard realized that when she looked at the world through a camera, it prevented her from participating in what she saw. She became obsessed with what it meant to be truly present in the moment, and what the natural world would reveal to you if you cultivated that presence. What she learned was that true seeing requires patience—and that most humans don't have that kind of patience.
So if you're not quite ready to commit to a year of self-imposed isolation, you can live vicariously through Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Even if you're a social butterfly and you like it that way, we're willing to bet this book will make you put down your smartphone for a minute—which, if nothing else, decreases your chances of running into stuff.
Annie Dillard's Official Site
First things first: Here's what the author has to say about herself.
Goodreads Reader Reviews
Want to know what real-life, non-literary critics think about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? Find out here.
Welty Critiques Dillard
Author Eudora Welty wrote the New York Times review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974. Fancy.
Yale Herald Interview
Dillard's straight talk on being an English major and writing a book. Straight talk is kind of Dillard's bag.
Washington Post Interview
Dillard chats with interviewer Daniel Asa Rose from her cabin in the woods—and their conversation starts with a bang.
Pittsburgh Magazine Interview
Dillard is a Pittsburgh native. Here's what she has to say about her hometown and why she doesn't read American women writers.
And Now for a Little Karaoke
Annie Dillard. The illustrator who drew Babar. Karaoke. Seriously, we're at a loss for words—just click.
Hollins Theatre Production
The theatre department at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia adapted Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the stage. Check out a few scenes here.
Dillard talks to Scott Simon about her novel The Maytrees and reads an excerpt.
Tsunami Commentary: Dots in Blue Water
Dillard shares her thoughts on the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, calling for human remembrance instead of faceless numbers.
Here's a photograph of Dillard in 1975, the year she won the Pulitzer…
… and here's a photograph of her more recently
Tinker Creek in the Fog
We're looking for the tree with lights in it, too.