Reading the title of this inspiration piece probably makes no sense until you get an appropriate context. The context comes as I begin re-reading a classic book for me, namely, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I have used this book in a course I teach and I always love returning to the pages of this contemporary contemplative of nature. I don’t know how else to put it, except to say Annie Dillard is an exciting writer. Originally appearing in 1974, the book reads as if it were published only yesterday.
The reader would not know it, but Annie Dillard summarizes the entire book in a paragraph in the first chapter. I would not have known this until a second or third read of the book. This summarization comes in a paragraph where Annie describes where she lives. Quite simply she says, “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.” Again, I am not sure I caught the connection between this sentence and the book title until about the third re-read.
The next sentence in the book also is revealing, if the reader is alert. Dillard says, “An anchorite’s hermitage is all an anchor-hold…” Of course, virtually none of my students will have a clue what an “anchorite” is. I would not have known that when I was in college either! What is a little more distressing is the fact that I know almost none of the college students will bother to look up the word to find out what it means. I don’t know whether that suggests a lack of curiosity or love of learning? But it is a troubling sign.
I know an anchorite is someone who lives alone---usually suggesting someone who lives apart or away from other people. It is a term that early monks used of themselves. Early monks or anchorites withdrew from the crowds and the world in order to seek God and truth. Some days that makes perfect sense to me. And I am sure, this is what Dillard wants the reader to understand in her life at Tinker Creek. She has become a contemporary monk by the mountain and at the creek. The book is a journal of her pilgrimage.
Dillard describes in functional terms her anchor-hold; “It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.” She continues, “The creeks---Tinker and Carvin’s---are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies…” Very quickly Dillard is moving from a description of her house---borrowing monastic terminology---to telling us, the readers, that she is going to watch the creek, which becomes symbolic of all the world has to teach us, to learn some life’s lessons. Reading Dillard always leaves me gasping and, then, grabbing for more!
Then in a very compact few lines in the book, Dillard offers in her book summary what might well be an outline of nature spirituality. She builds on the notion of a continuous creation and the providence that implies---perhaps implicating God, but certainly not claiming a creator God. This is how Dillard describes the world she will observe: “the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.” This is an amazing string of phrases and revealing words.
Dillard talks about vision; that’s simple enough. Then she talks about the “fixed.” That is not clear what she means. But if you think about it, little in nature is fixed. Seasons change, etc. The fixed is usually dead meat for change and the future. Perhaps there is the spirituality lesson from nature. This fits closely to the idea that the present is always giving way to that which comes---the future. She is charmed by beauty in nature and, I admit, so am I.
Fecundity is not a word students would know. It means fruitfulness---often radical fruitfulness. Think about a grain of corn. Plant it and you get an ear of corn---that’s fecundity. I like the way she describes the free. The free are elusive. I like to think about the deer that come into my back yard. They are free, but they are also elusive. So it is with much of the free things in our world. No one knows better than I that perfection is often flawed. That is what every perfectionist knows!
There is so much more to say here, but then I recognize Dillard writes her book to say the “more” that is wrapped up in these cryptic introductory words. Near the end of that powerful paragraph, Dillard gives the reason why I chose the title I chose. She writes, “The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there.”
Maybe I am one of those creeks of the world and my creek is my life. Dillard helps me to pay attention. With enough care I fully expect to see the marks of Divinity all around me. She helps me see and to say what I see.