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.

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Transitions

One of Beatrix Ferrand’s most famous projects is the garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, which is known for its lavish garden rooms and magnificent attention to detail.   As you can see in the map below, each garden “room” has its own name — Rose Garden, Urn Terrace, Pebble Garden, etc. — and each room is masterfully designed and delightful to experience. [Read more…]

“Malignant Magenta”

Some interesting revelations in a book I’m currently reading called One Writer’s Garden, which is about the Jackson, Mississippi garden of Eudora Welty and her mother Chestina

Last night I read this explanation for the shunning of magenta flowers back in Welty’s day (early 20th century, but the magenta aversion continues today for many gardeners):

“Historian Susan Lanman..points out that arsenic was was commonly used in pesticides, giving crops a magenta color that indicated that the lethal poison had been applied.  [Gertrude] Jekyll and others distressed by the effects of industrialization eschewed [magenta]for such associations with pollution, and its manufacture from aniline dyes, which themselves were derived from the coal whose smoke blackened England’s skies.”


Byzantine gladiolus.

Ew.  So magenta=toxic was part of the reason they didn’t like it. 

But also many gardeners and designers just found the color plain nasty.  Apparently, Gertrude Jekyll is the one who tagged it “malignant magenta” and another British garden writer called the color “that awful form of original sin.”


Poor magenta.  It doesn’t seem fair.  Everyone has their tastes, but who wouldn’t want to stumble upon that lovely sweep of Byzantine Gladioli (pictured above) on a drive through the country?

(Source: One Writer’s Garden, by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown.)

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Mistakes

“A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.”

–James Joyce

13retain1_lgThen again, Joyce was a man of ideas.  I’m sure no contractor ever said to a client: “Oh, that retaining wall I put in last fall is collapsing now?  But of course!  How could something so bourgeois hold back the anarchy of our modern age??  Don’t you see??  It was futile from its inception!!!”

Anyway, it only took me a few minutes to compile a long list of mistakes that I have made over the course of my study of landscape design.  Here are just a few:

1. Giving landscape design advice to people who didn’t ask for it.  You might think that this would be obvious, but when you’re a new landscape design student all super-excited about what you’re learning, like I was, sometimes you can go a bit overboard.

[Read more…]

Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

In the Final Comprehensive of my Landscape Design Course, we had to work in teams of three. I was in a group with two other talented people (both professional designers), and our task was to redesign a small park on the campus of GW.

We brainstormed. We sketched. We had meetings — many, many meetings. We discussed. We argued. We tried to change one another’s minds and we attempted compromise.

[Read more…]

David Culp’s Layered Garden Includes Black Walnuts!

layeredMore good news for those of us living with Juglans nigra! In his new book The Layered Garden, David Culp describes several genera that he has grown with success beneath these anti-social trees, including:

Smilacina — (Smilacena racemosa — False Solomon’s Sealan interesting perennial with white flowers in spring followed by green/red berries).

Asarum(cute little gingers!)

Aucuba — (Evergreen, Gold Speckles. Reminds me of the upholstery on the couch from my childhood family room, circa 1976. What’s not to love?)

Pulmonaria(I am always reading about how great these are — why don’t I grow them?)

Convallaria(I actually have Lily-of-the-Valley growing under a Silver Maple, which means they will officially grow anywhere.)

[Read more…]

The Election 2012 Garden Mash Up

Finally, the candidates discuss the real issues.   And just in time for election day, too!

(Oh, I guess I should mention the candidates’ actual words are in white and my very slight modifications are in yellow.)

[Read more…]

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…]


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