books that changed me: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

pilgrim-image

I have been a voracious reader since the young age where, in a flash of insight, markings on the page suddenly aligned to form words and meaning. I don’t know how old I was- four, five? But it seemed as though overnight a reader was born. One day I couldn’t read, the next day I could. It didn’t feel like a process of learning to read so much as a discovery of a latent ability. Like a baby swimming after being thrown into a pool, it felt natural, reflexive. Once I could read the basics, I graduated almost immediately to my parents books and magazines. I was insatiable; no stack of unread material would hold me for long. Still today I read fast, frantically,  and with an enthusiasm akin to how one devours pizza and beer at a Super Bowl party. But of the thousands of books I have gobbled in my lifetime, there are only a handful that have permanently changed me.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was on a long list of possible choices for my summer reading list prior to the start of my senior year of high school. I don’t recall why I picked this particular book, perhaps pulled in by a terse description as a “treatise on nature.” Or by a chance selection, an adequate supply at the local bookstore. Or maybe the hand of God pushed the paperback into my hands. No matter which scenario holds the best version of the truth, read it I did.

I was a 17-year-old city-dweller. I had no experience with most of the creatures Annie Dillard described with loving poetry – the muskrats, the birds, the plankton. But she illumined the mystery, the struggle to find meaning, and the sacred natural rhythms that surrounded me. She explored the land in her backyard and found traces of a divine I wasn’t sure existed, but it made sense to me without giving me specific answers. She voiced what I had felt intuitively, subconsciously, but hadn’t had the words to speak– that the closest thing to a power I’ll call God, for me, can only be found in growing, green things, and in the mountains and the birds and in blazing sunsets and sparkling stars and peeling birch bark and howling winds and the downbeat of a song. She was hungry to see it all, to understand the mystery. I read her words and found in my heart I was hungry too; I wanted to take everything in as she did: the shimmering lights and the looming shadows. Her words enlightened me to myself while simultaneously pushing me forward, cracking open my worldview and reminding me how little I knew, how much of the world I could discover if I dared.

It has now been nearly 17 years since I first read this book, a second lifetime repeated upon itself. I’m reading Pilgrim again, same copy I had in high school. My fingers trace the yellowed pages, the quotes that I underlined with a neon green pen. I don’t know if I see more clearly now than I did back then.  I don’t know if I fulfilled the dreams that were in my heart, the potential I believed was coursing in my youthful veins.  But here I am, again kneeling at her sacred words with my hand on my heart after carrying this book with me for at least 15 moves, thousands of miles, both literally and figuratively. It has sat on every bookshelf I have owned for 17 years. So while to reread something might pull me away from a new discovery, I believe there is a reason I have carried it with me all this time.  I believe it is time to start again.

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3 thoughts on “books that changed me: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

  1. Marty Harding

    I had the same experience. Now, 64, my life has turned more than three times 21, when I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I, too, burst into light like the trees Annie described, and understood just how powerful words can be. They enter you, never to leave, and you are etched and carved like the tiny worms under the bark of a tree not to be seen by anyone but you, and you know you have changed.

    Reply

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