This is a very intense, exquisitely observed book of nature observation, which took place over the course of one year at Tinker Creek in South Carolina in the USA.
The author wrote ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek‘ back in 1972, at the age of 27. I was captivated by the way she relates her nature observations to spiritual insights.
She sees a knot of snakeskin shed by a snake, and finding the knot has no beginning, she reflects on time as the continuous loop or as an ascending spiral.
“Of course, we have no idea which arc on the loop is our time, let alone where the loop is,” she remarks. “The spirit seems to roll along like the mythical hoop snake with its tail in its mouth.”
I was struck by these words: “I have always been sympathetic with the early notion of a divine power that exists in a particular place or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander.” They reminded me of JRR Tolkien’s observation: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
The book is quite demanding to read, as her use of language is so compact, poetic and intense, while she spends time with muskrats, praying mantises, grasshoppers and humming-birds.
Some of her narrative comes over as stream of consciousness, exquisitely detailed, as if she is in a state of heightened perception. She writes of “bumblebees the size of ponies”. She draws philosophical or mystical insights from a meeting with a copperhead snake, from the sight of a mosquito feeding on that snake, or from her presence at the terrifying event of a frog sucked dry by a giant water-bug.
The book also includes a dazzling array of facts about insect pests and their parasites. This leads her on to metaphysical speculations about life and dying. In dying, she imagines, we say, not “please…” but “thank you”, in recognising the extraordinary gift and sheer wonder of life on this earth. She shows, too, the wastefulness, the extravagance, the randomness, the horror and the cruelty of nature; and how all things move from perfection and wholeness to brokenness.
Late in the book, she cites Gerald Durrell (an author I have loved) as expressing the view that creatures live a much better life in (enlightened) captivity than they ever do out in the harshness of nature.
I have heard that view expressed again, quite recently, by a naturalist and wildlife conservationist: animals can expect a much healthier and longer lifespan in (good) captivity than they could ever expect in nature, their well-being catered for in a protected environment, safe from the astonishing but pitiless natural world “out there”.
This is a fascinating book, which repays slow and careful reading.