Chapter Earth, Book of Universe

Posted by Charlie Finn at

Recently I attended a Hollins University Theatre adaptation of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of this stellar literary achievement earning Dillard the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. How, in any adequate fashion, a record of impressionistic observations and musings without a story line could be adapted to the stage intrigued everyone, I suspect, who came to see it. That I came twice within the span of four days tells you I felt the effort wonderfully successful for giving the audience a true “feel” for the book.

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In the play’s program there was an invitation to select any single sentence in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and then “riff with it,” respond in whatever way that felt right with eleven sentences of one’s own. “Great idea,” I thought, and days later this is the sentence I chose and how I riffed with it.

“But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ©1974, pg. 10.

One of the words often mentioned in the futile attempts to “nail down” Annie Dillard is “mystic.” Opaque or off-putting as the word is to many, I suggest it accurately points towards something at the heart of her vision of things. While she herself considers Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “a book of theology,” I suspect most denominational theologians upon reading it might not catch her drift or, more likely, might scoff at her pretension. I look at her book, replete with riches from acute observation and imaginative pondering of the everywhere mysteries, as a kind of mystical treatise based on Chapter Earth in Book of Universe.

Compare the sentence I chose with a favorite exclamation of the French scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin:

“...the diaphany of the Divine at the heart of the universe on fire.”

Or this from the English poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”

Dillard’s own favorite metaphor for breakthrough experiences of spirit, a recurring motif in the book, is “the tree with lights in it.” While she acknowledges she experiences this rarely, she nonetheless lives for it. Regardless whether or not you have a religious affiliation, if you resonate with these words of Dillard, Chardin and Hopkins, you might come to recognize that you, too, have in you something of the mystic.

“Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I am still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moments when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ©1974, pg. 35.


Learn more about Annie Dillard

Learn more about Hollins University Pilgrim Project


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  • Love this and thank you for writting it. I don’t know the book and only came across this by searching for your poem to send to my sister.
    I recently returned from NZ (I live in UK) where I was visiting my elderly father who has lived there for over 30 yrs now. Where I was staying there were some beautiful trees, the leaves turning yellow with the Autumn. For around an hour ( breakfast time) on sunny mornings I would gaze on it with wonder as the yellow leaves turned into golden twinkling lights, when a breeze blew. It helped me tremendously to observe the beauty in the process of death and decay, knowing there will be rebirth too. Bless you.

    Clare on

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