Friday, August 16, 2019

When My Father Fell in Love With Annie Dillard

In 1975, my father read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and fell in love with both the book and its author. At the time, the Reverend Dan Abrams of the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Wyoming spent a goodly, Godly amount of time on the rivers and streams which braided through Jackson Hole like tangled silver necklaces. He could often be found in his non-pulpit hours standing on water-lapped banks, or thigh-deep in a tugging current, or atop great boulders in mid-stream where with his fly-rod raised like a sword and the determined, concentrated pinch of his face, he could be the model for a Civil War statue or, at the very least, the pudgy-but-dapper male model on page 54 of the L. L. Bean catalogue.

In the 1970s, my father spent so many restless hours outdoors that I wonder now if he wasn’t in daily pursuit of his own peaceful Tinker Creek where he could find temporary shelter from the emotional and soulful demands of the ministry. All I know is, when he read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, he closed the book with a sigh then sat down and wrote a love letter to its author. I was young then, but I can still remember the stir this caused in our house―not because of the word “love” (in my father’s line of work, love was the main commodity), but because he was corresponding with a famous person. Yes, once upon a time, writers were minor-league celebrities.

It was all in the guise of a proper book review which appeared in the weekly Jackson Hole News where, in fact, my father penned a weekly column called “Outdoors with Dan Abrams.” Over the course of nearly a decade, my father wrote about fishing, hiking, hunting, and conservation ethics. But mostly fishing. My father, the fisherman and, religiously-speaking, the “fisher of men,” was mad for piscatorial pursuits. In fact, if he’d been one of those original disciples on the beach who’d heard Jesus call to them, “Leave your nets and follow me!”, he might have been the last to drop his net and, with a final doleful look at the water, turn to go with the rest. I think it’s the simplicity of the water he loves: the languid glide over rocks, the rhythmic lap of waves, the determined, no-nonsense way a river cuts through a canyon of stone. He has always shared Annie Dillard’s “holy curiosity” for nature.

And so he reviewed her book.

And he sent her a tearsheet of the review.

And the author wrote back to the reviewer. And my father has rightly treasured that card with its quick-scrawled Thank You for years.

As I continue to make my way through James Mustich’s landmark 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, I have arrived at the D section, specifically “Di-”, and just around the corner from Dickens and next-door to Joan Didion, there is Annie Dillard. The inclusion of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, has stirred the memory of the time my father fell hard for Annie Dillard. Though I haven’t yet read Pilgrim (or, truth be told, any of Dillard’s other books―I am such a filial disappointment!), I remembered my father waxing rhapsodic about the book across a dozen dinnertimes. And so, the other day I asked my father if he still had a copy of that review. It arrived in my inbox less than an hour later. He, it seems, has not lost any of his ardor for this book....

I’ve never met Annie Dillard. Never laid eyes on her. But I think I’ve fallen in love with Annie Dillard (with my wife’s permission, of course).

You see, Annie wrote a book which she entitled Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was published over a year ago, but I got around to reading it just last month.

I wish I had read it a year ago. In fact, I wish Annie had written it ten years ago and I had read it then. But I am grateful she did and that I stumbled across it.

At first glance Pilgrim appears to be a chronicle of a year’s hikes and observations of the plants, insects, birds and animals which inhabit the environs of Tinker Creek, an ordinary stream flowing near her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

But don’t let that fool you. Through the eyes of Annie Dillard, the ordinary becomes something special and the common things in nature give hints of the very essence of life and the universe itself.

She allows herself to become immersed in a sense of wonder at the intricacies and interrelationships of God’s creation. She thrills at each new insight of universal proportion as revealed through her windows opened toward the little world of Tinker Creek.

We walk and watch with Annie as she stalks muskrats, scares frogs, collects the eggs of a praying mantis, and sees a mosquito sinking its hypodermic stinger into the neck of a copperhead snake.

We sense her fascinated horror as she observes a giant water bug as it injects a frog with enzymes which dissolve the victim’s muscles, bones and organs. Then the heavy-bodied brown beetle sucks the frog dry of the resulting juices, leaving nothing but a formless skin floating in the film of the water.

Let me warn you, Annie’s imagination takes some strange leaps when you least expect it. She spends a night in a nearby meadow and somehow her thoughts wander to a phenomenon about eels described by Edwin Way Teale. [My father was also a big EWT fan; I have his books, too, but once again you should just go ahead and dip me headfirst in boiling oil because I haven’t read them.]

In one of his fascinating books, Teale tells how eels will sometimes crawl for a mile or more across dewy meadows to reach streams that will carry them to salt water. Annie’s stream of consciousness then flows along to consider the strange life cycle of eels. Not the ordinary stuff of thoughts to ponder as one whiles away the night on an inland meadow.

She has an insatiable thirst for kinky facts and quirks of nature. Annie sits under a sycamore tree near Tinker Creek and begins to contemplate the tremendous extent of life to be found in the top inch of soil on which her body rests.

There comes a consciousness of the fact that in the top inch of forest soil, scientists have found an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various numbers of 12 other forms. There could be upwards of two billion bacteria, and many millions of fungi, protozoa, and algae in a mere teaspoon of soil.

Such statistics tend to boggle the mind, but they keep Annie intensely aware of her surroundings and instills a refreshing sense of awe and wonder at finding herself in the presence of such variety and quantity of life.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek one receives new insights to the art of seeing, hints on stalking small wild creatures, and a treasure of interesting facts (ten percent of all the world’s species are parasitic insects).

Annie Dillard is a poet and it is a pleasure to read words strung together exquisitely as pearls on a delicate strand from Cartiers.

Her enthusiasm for life, her childlike sense of wonder and her aggressive curiosity seriously infect the reader. All of this has joined together in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to produce a hymn of joyous praise to the Creator and His world.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It will go a long way in honing your sensitivity to the natural world about you and thus tuning up your capacity to enjoy the moment at hand wherever you are. Be careful, though. You, too, will probably fall in love with Annie Dillard.

After all, who can resist a girl who plays “King of the Meadow” with a field of grasshoppers and who delights in knowing there are two-hundred twenty-eight separate and distinct muscles in the head of an ordinary caterpillar.

[...There is something endearing about that “Shucks.” I like to think of the author sitting at her table, the burble and babble of Tinker Creek riding to her on the breeze, reading this fawning review that arrived out of the blue from a preacher-man in Wyoming, feeling the pink bloom across her cheeks, searching her roomy writer’s brain for just the right word and finally finding it in the simple, charming Shucks.]

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Postscript: When I visited Annie Dillard’s website after posting this, I learned just how rare and special that handwritten note has turned out to be. The Annie Dillard of 1975, still standing fresh and unknowing at the doorstep of her approaching fame, could afford the time to write to small-town pastors; now, however, it’s another story (and justifiably so; I may one day steal/borrow these words for my own0:
Like many other writers, I can no longer read, let alone comment on, the many books and manuscripts people send me. I am going to stop even acknowledging them, to my sorrow and the sorrow of many good writers. I’m merely overwhelmed. I can’t help get others’ writing published, not because I’m holding out, but because I don’t know any agents who are taking on new writers or even who handle “literature.” I lay low. Nor can I write introductions or forwards or provide comments or text or reviews. It’s a matter of time, not of heart. If I answered one-twentieth of the mail, I could neither read nor write, let alone take care of family.


  1. I love this week's blog! I teach 11th grade English, and we have a Nature Unit of which excerpts of Annie Dillard's writings are studied. Annie Dillard makes one begin to appreciate nature, or appreciate it more. I understand your father's love for her. 🙂

  2. Oh, I love this. There's nothing like sending a fan letter and getting a response—it's great to be followed back on Twitter by authors you love, but not quite the same.