Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

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