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RANDY HUFF: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Turns Fifty – And It’s Still Worth The Read!

I am sure there are those who have read most of the best books, looking past the merely good and knowing from elders and ancients which are worth reading: the soul-feeding, the making-wise tomes we all know we should read but seldom do. I’m definitely in the camp of “seldom do” though I remedy it a bit each year. And while I wandered among the non-classics and more modern, I ran across Annie Dillard.

I remember my first encounter while reading Eugene Peterson. He excerpted her discussion of explorers’ quest for the North Pole. Annie compared this to the quest for God: worship is “a kind of northing…a single minded trek to a place.” I was attempting to read while walking on a treadmill and when I finished the section I laid the book aside and exclaimed repeatedly all I knew to say: “Wow!” I had never read anything like it.

Annie Dillard would never put herself in the camp of the greats, nor am I, but I reckon she is as good as most of us will read. And if you give her half a chance she’ll make you think about things you never imagined, and make you wonder if you’d done much thinking at all.

I later discovered her Pulitzer Prize winner, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published 50 years ago this week. She won the Pulitzer in 1975 at the mere age of 29. “Wow” I thought again as I read about the book. I learned she attended Hollins College (now University), and then discovered that very Tinker Creek bordered our property. Further, I had often mowed yards with my son in the area she discusses, dipping a foot in that creek now and then and visiting homes she witnessed in her treks.

When I learned this was the 50th anniversary, I decided it was time to read Pilgrim for the first time. A friend told me it was a top-ten lifetime book. The editor at her publishing house said one can only hope to read such a book. And of course it is well-known she is considered an heir to Thoreau. I am deciding she combines Wendell Berry and Neil Postman, among others. I am also deciding I will not try to read the book fast.

I once took up the Bonhoeffer [modern] classic, Life Together, thinking I would read it in an afternoon and crank out a lesson in which others could feed mind and soul. Not! After ten minutes I quit. It was not a book for analysis but for soaking, for plodding, for praying and waiting and wishing to learn.

Pilgrim is in a different class to be sure, but I made the same error. Impossible.

Hang analysis. Pilgrim is for pondering, praying, wondering, learning, laughing. The book uncovers nature and in the process uncovers the reader. No doubt that’s half the battle, resigning to the uncovering that cannot be had without letting go. We determine to listen, to see, to stop, to just be, and we begin to live again, if we ever really did.

I laugh now as I thought I would read the book in a long afternoon and then convey all I learned to others. I was on a timeline that in itself denied all the book would teach me. What can I know – at all – if I do not stop, if I do not listen, if I do not learn from the creek.

So I decided to do something I am not good at: letting go. Maybe there would be something to say after I was quiet for a long time, if I took notes, if I just listened before saying anything. So that’s what I’m going to do. I am going to read Tinker Creek at a slow pace throughout the year. Yes, I will write before I know much – that’s what writers do. But I look forward to the journey and hope some others will join me on it.

Dillard is rightly a celebrated American author. I think I will find the journals which unveiled Tinker Creek 50 years ago – much like the Scripture she repeatedly invokes – will unveil the reader. That’s what art is supposed to do and great art all the more. I bet Pilgrim does a good job of this unveiling, and I look forward to finding out if I am right.

Randy Huff

– Randy Huff

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