“Step down, Pilgrim. Take a look.” – John Wayne

by Roy Beckemeyer

I have been thinking for some time now of writing down some thoughts on books that have moved me, stayed with me for most of my life, or influenced the direction my life has taken.

A recent announcement I received from Eighth Day Books (a very special store located in Wichita, Kansas) about a book titled “Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh: An Incarnational Theory of Language,” by Colleen Warren (Lehigh University Press, 2010), in which the author focuses on an interpretation of author Dillard’s work in light of Christian theology, brought to mind my experiences with Annie Dillard’s many publications.

It also reminded me that it had been a number of years since I had read “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard’s magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning book (Harper Magazine Press, 1974). “Pilgrim” is a book that literally changed my life. The book dealt with Dillard’s experience of nature, her explorations of the natural world around her home, and her attempt to put what she saw in the context of her theological beliefs. Its focus was with really seeing, and then really thinking about nature. (Thus the John Wayne quote used to title this essay.)

I first read “Pilgrim” in 1975-1976, and it significantly altered the focus of my non-professional interests. I had finished up my Ph. D. in aeronautical engineering in 1974, and was enjoying doing airplane noise-reduction research work for Boeing. But I missed academic work, and wanted to take some other course work that would broaden my knowledge base beyond mathematics and engineering (although in getting my B.S. in aeronautical engineering from St. Louis University in 1962, I had taken a number of courses in philosophy and religion, as the school was administered by Jesuits).

My wife and kids and I were also just getting into backpacking, and were using our yearly vacation trips to travel the mountains of the western U.S. We were encountering all sorts of plants and animals and geological features that were new to us, and so I had begun reading nature field guides and nature books. Dillard’s “Pilgrim,” and “Land Above the Trees: A Guide to American Alpine Tundra,” by Ann H. Zwinger and Beatrice E. Willard (Harper and Row, 1972) were the first two nature books that really got my attention. Based on those books, I began taking a variety of field ecology classes that became the foundation for a second post-retirement “career” in biology and paleontology.

I thought that it would be interesting to go back and read these books in light of my many subsequent years of working in natural history and biological science. I am wondering how my opinion of the books might be changed. So I will be re-reading “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” as well as reading Warren’s new book on Dillard, and reporting on them in this blog in the future.

To help bring back the impact of my first reading, I am going to quote from a book review of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” that I wrote for the newsletter of a local outdoor equipment store (Mountain High, located in Wichita, Kansas) back in 1976:

“Although I have been a voracious reader and a bibliophile from the age of twelve, I can recall actually wearing out only three books. One was a handbook I referred to almost daily in my work over a period of some fifteen years. Another was a textbook I used in a particularly traumatic bout with a three-smester college mathematics course. The third was Annie Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I just went out and bought a second copy after constant thumbing and exuberant page turning reduced the first to tatters within a year. Without a question, this woman can write! She is a poet-naturalist-philosopher whose perceptions of the natural world will excite you, bewilder you, enchant you, cause you to lose all sense of proportion and restraint. You don’t have to read far in this intensely personal book before you find yourself wishing you could converse with her directly. I find myself continually turning to her picture on the jacket, and saying things like ‘Of course, I know exactly what you mean…’ or ‘Yes, but what about this…’ or, sometimes, just staring, open-mouthed, caught breathless by a particularly exquisite passage.

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book which chronicles Annie Dillard’s attempts to come to terms with nature. She is a year-round walker, stalking the banks of Tinker Creek, which flows near her home in the Blue Ridge, and taking in everything around her. Too often, natural history seems to be reduced to classification and categorization, to the branding of each living thing with two Latin names and a set of statistics in metric units.

Miss Dillard, however, has something more important to convey to us than an enumeration by genus and species, than a catalog of behavioral patterns and eccentricities. She roams metaphysics and science, exploring and probing, seeking out the essence, the gut-facts of nature. Her thoughts and visions are recorded on what are surely some of the most striking and memorable pages ever to appear in print; the beauty of her prose belies the fact that these are simply words printed with black ink on white paper. This is a High Mass, a celebration of the raw wonder and mystery that is life. This is a remarkable book, written by a truly remarkable person.”

I was obviously impressed by this book and by Annie Dillard’s writing (I subsequently bought copies of every new book she wrote). Now to see how a pilgrimage of 36 intervening years might have altered my perceptions…

– Roy Beckemeyer