|photo by Amy Brandon|
"But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames." Annie Dillard
This week's Nonfiction November topic suggestion to pair a nonfiction book with a novel is easy for me, as two of the books I've recently finished lend themselves to pairing in multiple ways: both are narrated by mountain-loving, independent-thinking women, both are set in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, both revel in the beauty of the natural world, and both are books I loved but would hesitate to recommend to everyone. If all of that's not enough, my edition of Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith sports an endorsement by Annie Dillard, the author of the nonfiction part of the pairing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
I recently blogged about Fair and Tender Ladies (here), an epistolary novel which tells the story, through her own words, of Ivy Rowe, a Virginia mountain woman who is wedded more completely to her precious home mountain than to any member of the human race.
The second part of this post is going to be a bit more difficult, not because I liked Pilgrim at Tinker Creek less, but because I loved it more. I loved it more, in fact, than about ninety percent of everything else I've ever read. Maybe I'm overstating, but probably not. Now before you get all 1-Click happy and buy you a copy, hear me out.
There have been many times I've jumped blind and head-first after a book based on a blog rave and then been completely taken aback when I thought I was getting A Tale of Two Cities and ended up with an engineering text on city planning.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not a novel. It is not linear. There is no catchy dialogue, no clever character development, no plot twists, no climax, no denouement. What exactly it is defies definition. It is poetry. It is beauty. It is a prayer, a meditation, and a continual revelation. It is water and light and wind and wild and earth and luminosity and brilliance and obscurity. At its simplest, it is the journal of one woman's year on Virginia's Tinker Creek. At its most complex, it is, well, I don't know, because I haven't grasped it all yet. In between, it is theosophy, philosophy, theology, biology, entomology, and lots of other -ologies I can't name. I am already re-reading it. I suspect I will be constantly re-reading it over and over again. It must be read slowly and thoughtfully and much of it must be felt instead of understood. It is a balm for the weary soul.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek taught me to see. And oh, the things I have seen:
- a dragonfly hovering right at eye-level, facing off against this odd-looking interloper in his territory on a paddle board,
- a globular spider launching up and down, up and down, spinning against the back-lit, blue pink, twilight sky,
- a hognose snake reared up and puffed up like a cobra looking dangerous and angry but in truth benign and terrified
- scores of schools of fish, silver-bright twisting and turning in the jade waves as they break and reassemble all around me, my skin slippery with their quintessence
- a pin oak leaf spinning in a crazy dance on a barely visible web filament in a breeze so gentle I missed it until I saw it transform a dead leaf into a gift of extraordinary, exquisite beauty.
I've spent countless hours looking at nature before. I've been awed and inspired by her beauty before. But usually, I was looking for the big picture, the grand view, the obvious impression. How many of these small, lovely things would I have missed simply because I never thought to look? We see what we expect to see, and I fear this is more curse than blessing. When you open your eyes, really open them, and look around, you find something breathtakingly beautiful in every minute, even it it's just the bright, iridescent green fly occupying the space where your hand will soon be on your car door.