Concealed Mystery

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On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake
for a diarist living in Virginia in the 1970s.
** Linger to ponder the compulsion to hang on to things.
** Savor a last ½ cup considering the ability to quit while we’re ahead.
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First Sip:

I am no scientist.
I explore the neighborhood.

An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has
a frank and forthright way of
gazing about him in bewilderment.

He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is,

and he aims to learn
to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape,
to discover at least
where it is that

we have been so startlingly set down,
if we can’t learn why.

– Annie Dillard

Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia 
photo by Kirsten Westergard Newell

Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
photo by Kirsten Westergard Newell


Slice of Cake:

Nature conceals her mystery
by means of her essential grandeur,
not by her cunning.

– Albert Einstein
as quoted by Annie Dillard
in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

She grew up in the 1950s in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania;
As an 18-year-old in the early 1960s, Annie Dillard moved to Roanoke
in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. There she fell in love with the landscape
and the creatures in and around Tinker Creek.

She spent time walking around and looking around.
She turned over rocks, and collected creek water to
peer at under a microscope;
she poked at snapping turtles, and stalked muskrats;
she spent hours lying on her stomach watching a praying mantis lay its eggs.

And she kept a journal
where she wrote down what she saw, and what she thought.

Newtsare altogether excellent creatures, if somewhat moist,
but no one pays the least attention to them, except children.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard
photo by John Montré

When she was 28 years old,
Annie Dillard published a slim book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,

based mostly on those journal entries.

This was 1974a time when the environmental movement was first taking off,
and Dillard’s book praising the natural world became hugely popular.


side note:
For reference,
Earth Day began as a teach-in in 1970,
Apollo 17’s iconic
Blue Marble photo of Earth was in 1972,
and Greenpeace launched its ship,
Rainbow Warrior, in 1977.

In 1975, Annie Dillard was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

I am not washed and beautiful,
in control of a shining world in which everything fits,
but instead am wandering awed about on a
splintered wreck I’ve come to care for,
whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air,
whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions,
and whose beauty beats and shines

not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them,
under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

Here are 3 things I came away with
from my reading of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.


Annie Dillard scrutinizes nature with
monastic patience and a microscopic eye.
– William Deresiewicz 6

‘Seeing’ may not be her central theme in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
but it’s the part of her philosophy that has most stayed with me.

There are lots of things to see,
unwrapped gifts and free surprises.
The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies

cast broadside from a generous hand.

But—and this is the point—
who gets excited by a mere penny?

If you crouch motionless on a bank…and are rewarded
by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den,
will you count that sight a chip of copper only,

and go your rueful way?

It is dire poverty indeed 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.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

And here’s how I’d describe her philosophy:

If we look, we will see:
See beauty as well as cruelty; mystery as well as a tenacious life-force.

If we see, we will feel:
Feel the joy and privilege of being alive on this planet, which is
bursting with life and death, misery and joy.

The muskratnever knew I was there.

I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night
I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate;
I received impressions, but I did not print out captions.
My own self-awareness had disappeared;
it seems now almost as though, had I been wired with electrodes,
my EEG would have been flat.

I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this
self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating.
I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy
just by spending every waking minute

saying hello to ourselves

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard


Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly;
insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard spends time thinking
not just about the beauty of nature, but about philosophy, spirituality—
and the gruesomeness of insects.

As WBUR’s Genevieve Valentine said,
Dillard’s book carries “a touch of the hymnal—and a grim streak” 1

Nature will try anything once.
This is what the sign of the insects says.
No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque.

If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine.
If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass;
there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself.
This is a spendthrift economy;

though nothing is lost, all is spent.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

Dillard goes into great detail describing several insects’ predatory behaviors.

I had to skip these bits, honestly.
But if you’re ever wanting inspiration for writing a horror screenplay,
or need a fresh metaphor for the inhumanity of some humans,
I’d recommend Dillard’s insect chapters as an excellent resource.

Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain.

But if we describe a world to compass these
we bump against another mystery:
the inrush of power and light

There seems to be such a thing as beauty,
a grace wholly gratuitous

Beauty and grace are performed
whether or not we will or sense them.

The least we can do is try to be there.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

And I think that this is Dillard’s true theme:
With all this power and light and life and death going on around us,
the least we can do is try and be there.

Law of the Wild

My fingers were stiff and red with cold, and my nose ran.
I had forgotten the Law of the Wild,
which is, ‘Carry Kleenex.’

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

As my children could tell you, I quote this ‘law’ a lot.
(Especially when I’ve failed to obey it.)

Happy 76th Birthday
** Annie Dillard **

– born April 30, 1945
in the Point Breeze neighborhood
of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Linger Awhile:

There was joy in concentration.
And the world afforded an inexhaustible
wealth of projects to concentrate on.

There was joy in effort.
And the world resisted effort
to just the right degree and
yielded to it at last.

– from An American Childhood
Annie Dillard

Been thinking this week about the impulse to hold on.
To things and to thoughts. To tidbits and memories.
To experiences and impressions found in nature.
To interesting facts and phrases found in books.

As vlogger Ashley Riordan2 says:
Dillard had this early need to capture everything.
She was trying to keep anything from being lost,
so she made it her life’s work to “remember everything.”

I would go through life like a plankton net.
I would trap and keep every teacher’s funny remark,

every face on the street, every microscopic alga’s sway,
every conversation, configuration of leaves, every dream,
and every scrap of overhead cloud
. . .

Who would remember any of it, any of this our time,
and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside?

Somebody had to do it,
somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fist,
or the whole show had been in vain.

– from An American Childhood
Annie Dillard

I can easily relate to this.

When I come across a phrase that’s wonderfully written
or a passage that expresses something I had
felt or noticed, yet had never heard put into words—
or when I read some piece of history (whether it’s from 100 or 2000 years ago)
that seems so very relevant to what’s going on in the world right now…

In other words,
when I come across the beauty
found in literature
or the perspective found in history, I want to collect it somehow.
Keep it safe, keep it close. Never know when it’ll come in handy.

That’s why, when I watch videos or collect quotes or read books,
with each new treasure, I feel like here it is!
All this—right here—
ready to enrich our minds and gladden our hearts.

Because, of course, the other impulse for all this collecting is the need to impart.
Whether there’s anyone interested in receiving is another thing entirely!

I have often noticed that these things,
which obsess me,
neither bother nor impress other people even slightly.

I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering, and
like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say,
“Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the
ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?”

The poor wretch flees.
I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard

Like Dillard, I’m also driven to share:
History, because its lessons are still unraveling.
Literature, because… beauty! truth! perspective! hope!

How can I not share all this richness??

And honestly, that’s why I write this blog.
Because I simply can’t resist wanting to spread the wealth.

So when Dillard is cornering some innocent with her stories of goat caterpillars,
I’d be right there beside her, saying—
“Hey buddy, stop trying to inch away from us! This stuff is incredible,
no really! This you gotta hear about.”
—while I steal their phone to pull up my blog website so I can show them some post about…
Botany. Or Shackleton. Or Dorothy Fields…
Or Annie Dillard.


“Half Cup More”

I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books…

– Annie Dillard
on her official website 3

When Annie Dillard, at age 71, was interviewed on NPR,4
Melissa Block asked, gently:
You haven’t published a book for a long time…
You don’t think about another book at this point?

Dillard answered:
No, I don’t. I had good innings, as the British say.
I wrote for 38 years at the top of my form—
and I wanted to quit on a high note.

In another interview, Dillard is quoted as saying:
I worked so hard all my life, and all I want to do now is read.

Who can argue with that?


Take-Away Box

Live water heals memories.

I look up the creek and here it comes, the future.
If you look up the creek in any weather,
your spirit fills, and you are saying,
with an exulting rise of the lungs,
‘Here it comes!’

I see the creek pour down. It spills toward me
streaming over a series of sandstone tiers,

down, and down, and down.

I feel as though I stand at the foot of an
infinitely high staircase, down which some exuberant spirit
is flinging tennis ball after tennis ball, eternally,
and the one thing I want in the world is a tennis ball.

– from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

notes & footnotes

The Workings Of Nature: Naturalist Writing And Making Sense Of The World
by Genevieve Valentine
on WBUR pubic radio
August 2, 2016

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (Book Review)
by Ashley Riordan on her video channel ClimbTheStacks
December 9, 2014

Annie Dillard’s official website
where she states: “I’ve posted this web-page in self-defense.”

Author Interview: Annie Dillard, Author of ‘The Abundance’
by NPR’s Melissa Block
March 12, 2016

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard | Book Review
by Alex on his video series channel whatpageareyouon
October 26, 2018

I thought it was interesting that Alex says he feels that Tinker Creek
is even more self-reveling and intimate than
Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood.

Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?
by William Deresiewicz
The Atlantic
MARCH 2016


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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

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