At 20, Tinker Creek still runs deep

Monday Books

January 24, 1994|By Cristina Posa

ANNIE Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" was published in 1974, the year I was born. I hope the connection is more than just coincidence, for the beauty of this book is something I would not mind my life reflecting.

"Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, but since then a whole generation has grown up in America. I was lucky enough to have once befriended an algebra teacher who lent me the book after correctly pegging me as a potential fan of Ms. Dillard's.

There are some books which, if read while one is in that stage of trying to make sense of life, can change the way we understand the world and ourselves. "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand and "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse are examples.

"Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" is another, although it's less well known. Its premise is simple: Ms. Dillard is the "pilgrim" turning over ideas and observations while living next to Tinker Creek in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

Ms. Dillard reaches beyond cliches. She does more than describe her domain; she investigates it like a covert human operative in the world of plants and animals. In one particularly delightful passage, she relates an afternoon spent stalking a coot. "I had read somewhere that coots were shy. They were liable to take umbrage at a footfall, skitter terrified along the water and take to the air. But I wanted a good look."

So she spends hours sneaking peeks at the coot while standing "stock-still, thinking that after all I really [am], actually and at bottom, a tree."

Ms. Dillard's natural world is not one of tranquility and prettiness. Rather, it's often a terrifying struggle to survive. The forest may give humans refuge from everyday strife, but the creatures in it are never complacent.

"We are moral creatures in an amoral world," she declares. "The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die."

To illustrate her point, she tells the story of the frog and the giant water bug.

"He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my very eyes like a deflated football . . . It was a monstrous and terrifying thing . . ."

She then explains how the unfortunate frog was bitten and killed. "Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs -- all but the skin -- and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice."

By including such fascinatingly grim events, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" gives personality to the majesty around us, daring us to run outside with our eyes wide open and hunt down our own amazing scenes, for "nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair."

This is a book to be read slowly, to be savored page by page and stored in the mind and heart. Each sentence is as carefully crafted as a finely polished gem, and should be treasured as such.

The message of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" shines through each of Ms. Dillard's anecdotes, and it is one worth remembering. "Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone." Lines like this still make me want to hug the book, and the wonder of life in general, close to my heart.

Cristina Posa, a student at Johns Hopkins University, is an intern in the editorial offices of The Baltimore Sun.

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