“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge,” Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
“An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. . . . The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”
The reader would be forgiven for thinking that Dillard was indeed living alone in the wilderness by Tinker Creek, an anchoress living deliberately, determined to live amidst “the mystery of continuous creation,” and to, Thoreau-like, “front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Dillard meant to write in the tradition of Thoreau and other writers — Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, John Muir — who lived alone in the wild. But, like Thoreau, she wasn’t quite alone. Diane Saverin writes in The Atlantic:
“Dillard knew that being a graduate student, or a professor’s wife living in the suburbs, wasn’t as exciting as, say, living alone in Arches National Park, as Abbey did. In Desert Solitaire, he describes the gopher snake he befriended to keep rattlesnakes away from his trailer. The gopher sometimes wrapped around his waist, inside his shirt, and rested on his belt. (“I’m a humanist,” he writes, “I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”) Such a narrator embodied all the right American ideals: the mythic frontiersman, the wild man, the true hermit.
But to write in the tradition of lone-man-in-the-wilderness, Dillard had to find a way out of the facts that (a) she wasn’t a man and (b) she wasn’t living alone in the wilderness. Reading through the journals and notecards Dillard kept while writing Tinker Creek, Saverin finds Dillard wrestling with the manuscript and trying to reconcile her writing with the unmentioned parts of her life (“The husband she lives with, the friends she lunches with, and the people she plays softball with are all conspicuously missing.”) Dillard even considered making Tinker Creek a novel before deciding to write a novelized book of nonfiction. “I didn’t obscure anything, I just left it out,” Dillard tells Saverin.
Saverin’s whole essay is worth the read. And then also worth the read is what Dillard left in Tinker Creek: her razor-keen eye and her exuberant reception of the world’s mystery:
When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
May we who find ourselves in the suburbs live so deliberately.
* The featured image is of a handwritten draft with Dillard’s whimsical doodles in the margins (Annie Dillard/Beinecke Library/Diana Saverin).