Saturday, July 24, 2010

By the waters of Babylon

In his introduction to the British edition of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Richard Adams suggests that English nature writers are characterized by rejection of 1) technological progress and industrial society, 2) orthodox religion, and 3) contemporary social values as worth writing about. He is talking about the great tradition that runs from Wordsworth to Kenneth Grahame to -- well -- to Adams himself. He has a hard time fitting Dillard into these categories, finding a writer who flits in and out of technology, religious orthodoxy, and social interactions. And it's true enough -- Dillard is hard to pin down. She is as quixotic as the light and shadows that play about Tinker Creek.

My daughter Margaret gave me John Lister-Kaye's At the Water's Edge: A Personal Quest for Wildness for Father's Day. Lister-Kaye is an eminent British conservationist and nature writer. At the Water's Edge is his own Tinker Creek, an account of life in the environs of his home in a Scottish highland glen. He fits neatly into Adams' categories of rejection. He is a marvelous writer, and vastly more knowledgeable about nature than Dillard, say. But there is a steady soberness about him, none of the wild recklessness that sends Dillard careening up and down her creek in an anorak of purple prose. Lister-Kaye is more a gum-boot and waxed-cotton writer, which makes you want to sit with him on a log by his loch and sip a quiet whisky. His "wildness" seems rather tame compared to Dillard's churning, God-struck whirlwind of light and mystery.

In fact, I would be disinclined to call Dillard a "nature writer," and certainly not in the same sense as Lister-Kaye or Richard Adams. She is rather more a theologian. She can write a powerful passage about a giant water bug sucking the guts out of a frog, for example, but nature here is just a front for an all-encompassing drama that is more Old Testament than water's edge -- Yahweh torn between pity and rage.

I don't think of Dillard in the tradition of Thoreau or Lister-Kaye, but of a kind with the author of the Song of Songs or St. John of the Cross. Readers of The Soul of the Night, especially, will detect prose and purpose that have been blessed with the waters of Tinker Creek.