Make the pilgrimage with Annie

Donner Creek, Mt. Diablo.

When winter rains turn hiking trails into rivers of mud, we trekkers get our revenge by taking it inside: we grab a steaming beverage and nestle into our favorite chair with a good book. When we need a ride out of Cabin Fever City, there’s no better form of transport than our very own author-ignited imagination.

What to read? If you’ve ever felt the sun on your face in spring and been engulfed by a wave of awe and gratitude, or if you’ve ever witnessed up close the suffering of a loved one and shuddered at the hideous side of our existence; if you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the world’s beauty or suffocated by its horror and wanted to put a name to it, pick up a copy of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard.

“Pilgrim” is a book about the world of water and sky, trees and insects; broad in scope and painstaking in detail. It’s a book about the author’s inner landscape, an intimate and confessional diary. And it’s a book about the Why of the world’s joy and misery, an attempt not only to describe, but understand.

After a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia in 1971, Dillard retreated to the solitude of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and banks of Tinker Creek, where she found healing and inspiration. The result, in addition to her recuperation, was the book for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1975.

What makes the reading of “Pilgrim” so rewarding is Dillard’s dilated point of view. Her senses, her mind and her heart are fully open to the world’s phenomena – and their implications. She sees profundity in the simple and splendor in the ordinary. “It is dire poverty indeed,” she writes, “when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

Morning on Mt. Tamalpais.

“Pilgrim” is charged with an ecstatic tone but Dillard’s portrayal of the natural world is unsentimental. She not only concedes that nature is red in tooth and claw; she gives us the gory details. Her account of a frog’s skull being collapsed by a water bug sucking it dry from beneath the creek’s surface is a tour de force of ghastly description. Later, Dillard expresses bewilderment at the fact that 10 percent of the world’s species are parasitic insects, which suggests a disturbing possibility about the Creator: “What if you were an inventor, and you made ten percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring or totally destroying the other ninety percent?”

Dillard is a Christian, yet she draws from the wisdom of traditions as diverse as Buddism, Sufism, Eskimo lore and Hasidic Judaism. She embraces the paradox that existence is a blessing and a curse; that in our universe, creation and destruction are mysteriously intertwined. And yet she doesn’t let God off the hook for bringing it all into being. What Dillard concludes about the nature of God is consoling and disturbing, blatant and subtle.

“Pilgrim” urges us to step out and experience the moment. In a twist on the standard meaning of a familiar phrase, Dillard exhorts us to spend the afternoon: “You can’t take it with you.” For her, God’s grace imparted through the world of Tinker Creek is available at any moment. The least we can do is be present when the moment arrives. “The secret of seeing,” she writes, “is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the nearest puff.”

As a form of transport, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is more like soaring than slogging. It’s a pilgrimage worth making.