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.
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.
Unfortunately, Thoreau didn’t live in solitary splendor either. HIs cabin was within walking distance of town and he went home for dinner two or three times a week. HIs mother brought cookies to the cabin!
Yes, Mary Jo, my bubble was burst about Thoreau a long time ago when I found out he would take his laundry home to his mom every week.
Thanks for such an interesting post, it got my brain gears turning….
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when Thoreau quotes were on everyone’s lips, but I never read “Walden” until a couple of years ago, as a 50-something, and I confess I was disappointed. Besides the sense of hypocrisy, it just seemed disjointed and rambling. I think he survives scrutiny because he’s so epigrammatic, so quotable, and his quotes are easily taken out of the context of his life experience, to be conveniently used for people’s causes.
I had a hard time getting into “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” too, and I really tried because everyone raves about it. Like “Walden”, I only read it about a year ago, and I wondered if maybe I had read it back in the 70’s, it would have struck me a different way. I’m ambivalent about her decision to enlarge upon the truth in a non-fiction work, because I think the truth is often far more interesting and doesn’t need embellishing. She does have a lovely, poetic way with words. I will try her again.
One of my favorite women nature writers, on the other hand, is Sue Hubbell (everything she’s written). You don’t hear about her in the same breath as Abbey, Dillard, and the others, but I think she belongs with them. Her subject isn’t wilderness writing, and she was far from a hermit, but nature is up front and center.
Thank you for this thoughtful reply, Anne. I am not familiar with Sue Hubbell and am going to look her up right now. Another favorite of mine is Janisse Ray.
Sent from my iPad
Anne, I meant to add in my reply that I am also very wary of the nonfiction narrative genre these days for the same reasons you are — the truth is fascinating and contains multitudes…why embellish? the nonfiction label should mean something. I am reminded of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which reads like memoir, but was honest enough to be labelled a novel, even though the main character is named Tim O’Brien. I wonder if there is any objective criteria for a work to be labelled nonfiction…
I love Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, oh my! I was a wrung-out hankie after reading that, my eyes peeled open. And I’m a firm believer that fiction often contains truths that non-fiction can’t, but like you, I like to know what the form is before I read. I like literary non-fiction; Erik Larsen, for example. I think there are criteria for these genres, but the devil is in the details–I don’t know if the average reader considers which part is story telling and which is fact-based. Thoreau’s compression of time, for example; he was upfront about it, so I’m ok with that. I’m not sure how I feel about reconstructing scenes based on research, in order to give life to a historical truth. I’ll have to reread Dillard now, but I feel like her observations and descriptions were honest. Did it matter that she omitted the context of her surroundings and lifestyle? There is a taint of marketing; she seems to have tailored her writing to be marketable, assuming readers wanted a hermetic, wilderness perspective. But did that change what she wrote? I don’t think so. Sorry to ramble so much, you got me thinking!
No apologies, necessary, Anne. I have enjoyed your ramblings. Sounds like we have similar sensibilities when it comes to literature!
Oh yeah, and I’m a big Erik Larsen fan, too. Loved Devil in the White City, even though plenty of it was imaginitively reconstructed by the author.