As a graduate student, Annie Dillard wrote her thesis on Thoreau's Walden, admiring, like many, the poet's observations on the natural world around him and his keen awareness of the relationship between aesthetic beauty and personal consciousness. So inspired was she by the transcendentalist's experiences that, after college, she moved to rural Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Like Thoreau, Dillard came to the woods to keep a "journal of the mind." Indeed, Walden is the model. Dillard steps out of the stream of life, out of the proximity to noise and artifice, to go to the woods with no other intention than to absorb it into her senses and engage the subtly innate dynamism of the natural world. With time, her own mind, her inner-conscious becomes part of the story, and in effect, part of the phenomenon around her. Apparently it's no easy task. "This Looking business risky," she relates. "Seeing," according to Dillard, is "both verbalization (active) and letting go (passive) . . . I look at the water: minnows and shiners. If I am thinking minnows, a carp will fill my brain till I scream. I look at the water's surface: skaters, bubbles, and leaves sliding down. Suddenly my own face, reflected, startles me witless. Those snails have been tracking my face! Finally, with a shuddering wrench of the will, I see clouds, cirrus clouds. I'm dizzy. I fall in." (p. 33).
There are details, funny descriptions, wit and insight. But above all its the author's ephemeral transmutation, an engagement with nature, all of its wonders and tragedies, whether through premonition, observation or reflection, which so successfully engenders the book and Dillard herself to the reader. It certainly carries its own personality, a 'transcendental' experience without question, but it's never too meditative, never overly contemplative or densely constructed. It's merely a study in and of itself about two distinct characteristics: nature and solitude. Or, as Dillard says, "I had thought to live by the side of the creek in order to shape my life to its free flow." (p. 26). Pilgrim At Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. (508.9755792 DILLARD)