Annie Dillard — Suburban Pilgrim

For years I have worshipped Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer-prize winning meditation on nature written back in the 1970’s.  I keep a copy of it on my Kindle, and whenever the world feels too much with me, I like to retreat into a few of its pages.  Her descriptions of giant water bugs and mating wood ducks, intertwined with questions of creation and invocations of the great philosophers and scientists, are beautiful and strange and calming.


Dillard was living near Roanoke, Virginia, at the time she wrote it, and Pilgrim gives the impression that it was a solitary existence, that she was living in a secluded cabin in the woods, like Thoreau or Muir, spending her days trekking along the streams and through the fields without much human contact.

But no.

When I discovered that this was not true, when I discovered that Dillard was living in an ordinary suburban house with her husband when she wrote Pilgrim, I felt betrayed.  And part of me still feels it is a deception. To describe the wonder of the praying mantis egg cases but fail to mention that they exist in the shadow of a 1960’s brick rambler seems, at best, disingenuous.

Earlier this year The Atlantic published a piece about this revelation that the wildness in Pilgrim was really an illusion deliberately created by Dillard.  The article gives some interesting insights into Dillard’s motivations for creating this illusion.  Turns out she was afraid that her book would not make it into the the canon of wilderness literature if she didn’t portray herself as the archetypal solitary wanderer, or if she revealed that her surroundings were blemished by other human beings.  Heck, she was also worried that the American public wouldn’t accept a wilderness narrative written by a woman, but happily that turned out not to be true.

Here is an excerpt from the Atlantic article describing Dillard’s reaction to discovering how her readers perceived Pilgrim:

“Even still, [Dillard] said, before publishing Pilgrim she hadn’t realized how wild she’d made the valley seem. “I didn’t say, ‘I walked by the suburban brick houses,’” she told me. “Why would I say that to the reader? But when I saw that reviewers were acting like it was the wilderness, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’

Please.  I have a hard time believing that a writer as shrewd as Dillard wouldn’t realize exactly what she was doing when she wrote the book.

Anyway, my favorite passage from the article is this one, which reminds us that our wanderings through suburbia CAN be as awe-inspiring as Dillard’s were in Pilgrim if we take the time to look:

“But in many ways, her mundane surroundings make her achievement even more impressive. Other writers have hunted down awe-inspiring experiences in far-flung places: on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the wilds of Arches National Park, or among the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. But Dillard walked around her own neighborhood and captured a world that was buzzing with wonders and horrors.”

Yes, here in suburbia there is too much lawn, there are leaf blowers, plastic wishing wells, and basketball courts.

There are giant inflatable snowmen.

I guess forty years ago Dillard felt she had to pretend those things didn’t exist in order to write about the natural wonders among them.

Here’s hoping times have changed and that we now understand that the real illusion is the idea that all wilderness is “out there” and not (to paraphrase Thoreau) right under our feet.  Here’s hoping we can all recognize the wildness and wonder even in our suburban wanderings.

P.S.  Here is an excellent blog post by David Ryan which includes pictures of Tinker Creek and the neighborhood in which Dillard wandered.

Butterflies in Maryland

First a few species that are native to the DC area, including the larval host plant(s) for the species. 

Denaus plexippus – Monarch.  Milkweed spp.


Battus philenor – Pipevine Swallowtail.  Aristolochia species and Virginia Snakeroot.


Polygonia interrogationis – Question Mark.  Elm, Hackberry, Nettles, False Nettles.

QuestionMark (2)

Question Mark — top of wings visible while it’s nectaring.


Monarch chrysalises


Now for some exotic species:

Morpho peleides – Blue Morpho (Mexico to Colombia & Venezuela, Trinidad)

The back of the wings are electric blue, but the darn thing hardly ever opens them.


Doleschallia bisaltide – Autumn Leaf  (India, Malaysia to Phillipines, Australia)


Idea leuconoe – Paper Kite (Phillipines to Borneo, Taiwan)


Heliconius erato – Small Postman (s. USA to Paraguay)


Postman (2)

Dryas iulia – Julia Longwing (s. USA to Brazil; West Indies)


Hamadryas feronia – Grey Cracker (s. USA to Brazil)  <— I think


Papilio memnon – Great Mormon, male (Sri Lanka & India to s. China & Malaysia) below

and Heliconius hecale – Golden Helicon (Mexico to Peruvian Amazon) above


tattered Julia Longwing with Canna flower

DSC_1854 (2)

I couldn’t identify this one:

DSC_1825 (2)

or this one:

DSC_1782 (2)

Cethosia biblis – Common Lacewing (Nepal & China to Malaya, Thailand, Phillipines)


Blue Morpho


Greta oto – Costa Rica Clearwing (Mexico to Panama)


These photos were taken in August 2015 at the fantastic Brookside Gardens in Maryland, in the Wings of Fancy exhibit, which is open until October 2015.

Thanks to Corey Hilz for hosting a photography class at the site.

My Trip to Mount Cuba Center

Mount Cuba Center, in Hockessin, Delaware (near Wilmington), has long been on my garden visit bucket list.  It is a paradise of native Piedmont plants, and an inspiration for all of us living in “suburban woodlands” here in the mid-Atlantic.

What I learned: the key to a great Woodland Garden is open shade.  They had almost all of their big shade trees limbed way up, plus there were a lot of tulip poplars, which don’t have low limbs anyway.  There was plenty of bright filtered light for the wildflowers to bloom in abundance.

Enjoy the photos!


You wish the woods in your neighborhood looked like this, instead of being smothered in invasive vines.



Redbud, Fothergilla, Tulip Tree



Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)



a native herbaceous clematis with adorable little nodding white flowers



Amethyst Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon amethystinum) with Quaker Ladies (Houstonia caerulea)



Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens)



Dwarf Iris



A patch of dwarf Iris in blue — so cute



Flame Azalea bloom about to open.


Unfurling fern


Ferns emerging from Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida) plus some Wood Poppies and Bottlebrush Buckeye in the back.


They also had fauna.



Great combo! Golden Alexanders and Woodland Phlox (I think Phlox divaricata)


I overheard a very intelligent looking lady say this was Interrupted Fern



They have a lilac allee there, left over from the orginial duPont garden plan. Here is my sister taking a whiff. Mmmmm.



I love these raspberry colored primroses by the stream.



A view toward the meadow with Quaker Ladies in the foreground. I want to come back in the late summer to see the meadow in its glory.



Sculpture of a maple samara that actually moves in the wind — neat!



I believe this is a Southern Red Trillium (Trillium sulcatum) floating over a sea of Rue Anenome (Thalictrum thalictroides?)



Trillium grandiflorum Double Loop form



Trillium grandiflorum



Underwood’s Trillium (Trillium underwoodii)



Twisted Trillium (Trillium stamineum)



Trillium grandiflorum – pink form



A patch of trillium, I can’t remember which kind.


The circular formal garden (another remnant from the original duPont house) was planted out with electric blue delphiniums and the most fabulous array of peach, pink, and yellow tulips of different heights. Awesome!


Looking down at the tulips

Looking down at the tulips


Yellow Mandarin (Disporum lanuginosum). A unique perennial with delicate little yellowish flowers that hang down….hard to see with the green background.


Phlox stolonifera with Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids



Woodland path with Purple Pharecia



Ferns, woodland phlox, trillium



Viola walteri ‘Silver Gem’ — a Mt. Cuba introduction



Virginia Bluebells, Wood Poppies, unfurling ferns



Dogwood path

Conservation vs. Protection

What’s the difference?

I ask because I came across this quote from Teddy Roosevelt when I visited Roosevelt Island this weekend:

“Conservation Means Development as Much as it Does Protection.”

Coming from the man who established the National Park System, I raised an eyebrow when I read this.  These terms — conservation, preservation, protection, etc. — are pretty slippery.  When you’re talking about actual environmental policy, these words have no concrete definition. Which, come to think of it, is probably why politicians like them.  Politicians are just nuts about abstract language.

[Read more…]

The Heart and Soul of America

If you had to choose one place in the United States that you felt all Americans should visit, one landscape or landmark representative of the “American ethos”, what would it be?

I started pondering that question last week after reading a piece in the great gardening e-mag Garden Drum. The article’s Australian author, Catherine Stewart, writes of her pilgrimage to Uluru (more familiar to us as Ayers Rock), the giant monolith located smack dab in the middle of the Australian continent.

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“Now Entering the Xeric Hardpan Forest”

Recently I purchased and read Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont.

Now, before you go labeling me as a mega-dweeb, you should know that plant communities are super hot right now. All the coolest middle aged suburban garden bloggers are talking about them and how they can be used as inspirations for design.

Where have you been?

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Tomato Hornworms Provide Bigger Pay-Off Than Actual Tomatoes

At least for my six-year old son. 

When he first spied one of the chubby 3-inch long hornworms among the tomato foliage, he recoiled in horror.

Horror gradually turned to cautious fascination as he helped me find several other hornworms that were feasting on my plant. 

Charlie provides Last Rites to a Tomato Hornworm

Five minutes later he was plucking them off by hand, studying them, getting to know them as individuals, naming them things like “Mr. Chewie” and “Spike”.

Then he happily ushered them into the Lepidoptera Afterlife by submerging them in tub of soapy water.

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Crispy Fried Water Gardens

Yesterday my sister and I visited the beautiful  Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in northeast DC for a photo class.  Even though we got there at 6:45am to get the best light, the air still felt like a wet diaper. 

[Read more…]


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