Mary GrayIf the ‘wilderness’ is really suburbia, is it a betrayal?

For years I have worshipped Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer-prize winning meditation on nature written back in the 1970’s. I keep a copy of it on my Kindle, and whenever the world feels too much with me, I like to retreat into a few of its pages. Her descriptions of giant water bugs and mating wood ducks, intertwined with questions of creation and invocations of the great philosophers and scientists, are beautiful and strange and calming.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie DillardDillard was living near Roanoke, Virginia, at the time she wrote it, and Pilgrim gives the impression that it was a solitary existence, that she was living in a secluded cabin in the woods, like Thoreau or Muir, spending her days trekking along the streams and through the fields without much human contact.

But no.

When I discovered that this was not true, when I discovered that Dillard was living in an ordinary suburban house with her husband when she wrote Pilgrim, I felt betrayed. And part of me still feels it is a deception. To describe the wonder of the praying mantis egg cases but fail to mention that they exist in the shadow of a 1960’s brick rambler seems, at best, disingenuous.

Earlier this year The Atlantic published a piece about this revelation that the wildness in Pilgrim was really an illusion deliberately created by Dillard. The article gives some interesting insights into Dillard’s motivations for creating this illusion. Turns out she was afraid that her book would not make it into the the canon of wilderness literature if she didn’t portray herself as the archetypal solitary wanderer, or if she revealed that her surroundings were blemished by other human beings. Heck, she was also worried that the American public wouldn’t accept a wilderness narrative written by a woman, but happily that turned out not to be true.

Here is an excerpt from the Atlantic article describing Dillard’s reaction to discovering how her readers perceived Pilgrim:

“Even still, [Dillard] said, before publishing Pilgrim she hadn’t realized how wild she’d made the valley seem. “I didn’t say, ‘I walked by the suburban brick houses,’” she told me. “Why would I say that to the reader? But when I saw that reviewers were acting like it was the wilderness, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’

Please. I have a hard time believing that a writer as shrewd as Dillard wouldn’t realize exactly what she was doing when she wrote the book.

Anyway, my favorite passage from the article is this one, which reminds us that our wanderings through suburbia CAN be as awe-inspiring as Dillard’s were in Pilgrim if we take the time to look:

But in many ways, her mundane surroundings make her achievement even more impressive. Other writers have hunted down awe-inspiring experiences in far-flung places: on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the wilds of Arches National Park, or among the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. But Dillard walked around her own neighborhood and captured a world that was buzzing with wonders and horrors.

Yes, here in suburbia there is too much lawn, there are leaf blowers, plastic wishing wells, and basketball courts.

There are giant inflatable snowmen.

I guess forty years ago Dillard felt she had to pretend those things didn’t exist in order to write about the natural wonders among them.

Here’s hoping times have changed and that we now understand that the real illusion is the idea that all wilderness is “out there” and not (to paraphrase Thoreau) right under our feet. Here’s hoping we can all recognize the wildness and wonder even in our suburban wanderings.

P.S. Here is an excellent blog post by David Ryan which includes pictures of Tinker Creek and the neighborhood in which Dillard wandered.

[More information about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek here – Ed]

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3 thoughts on “If the ‘wilderness’ is really suburbia, is it a betrayal?

  1. Drew Batt on said:

    Or could it be that “wilderness” and “wildness” are illusions? Or one person’s wilderness is another’s inflatable snowman?

  2. Paul Morgan on said:

    Hi Mary,
    Thank you for your expose. I too have been a fan of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for many years, impressed by its depictions of the human connection to the natural world, and the depth of feeling Annie Dillard brought to her depictions of Tinker Creek. I was fascinated by your account and followed your links that delved a bit deeper into the story. I must say that I was deeply disappointed to find out the truth behind the fabrication. not because I object to suburbia being presented as wilderness. Quite the opposite. Dillard’s ability to capture and celebrate nature in the mundane suburbs of Virginia is the book’s towering achievement. I believe it is essential that we learn to recognise, nurture protect and celebrate the nature outside our backdoors if we are to find a workable solution to the burgeoning ecological crisis we are facing. We need to find far better ways to get the balance with nature in our cities right if we are to avoid strangling nature and an essential part of ourselves.

    My disappointment stems from the lack of authenticity in the book. The article in The Atlantic gave Annie’s reason’s for presenting herself as lone figure in the wilderness, which as I understand it was to overcome readership bias accustomed to mythic tales of the American lone big man in the wilderness. As a female writer, if Annie D were to identify the locale as suburbia, with all its associations to female domesticity particularly at the time she wrote, much of the mythic quality of the writing would have been lost. And I agree with her that this would have failed to inspire much of her readership, if not alienating them .

    No, it is the fabrication of solitude, and its associated faux-spirituality there in the title and references to anchorites and so forth that I find so disappointing. I feel conned by this mystic-in-the-woods charade. The transcendent representations of nature in the book are wonderful, glorious and would happily stand alone without needing to lean on the shoulder of the spiritual seeker trope. I guess it is the airbrushing of humanity out of the picture that I object to whether that is the beer cans under the bushes or her need for human companionship. We are social animals. We like to hang out together. Pretty well all of the ‘spiritual’ people I know emphasise the importance of their spiritual community as a foundation of their spirituality. Meanwhile, the denial of our animal nature, including the human animal’s penchant for community in the name of spirituality I believe is a root cause of the currently unfolding disgrace of church based sexual abuse of children.

    So it is the fabrication of the social context rather than the natural context that upsets me. For all the hyper-realism of the natural history observations in Pilgrim, it is an idealised version of the human-nature relationship, shifting the book from the genre of nature writing to utopian fantasy. But then it is a book of its time when the paradigms of modernity and patriarchy had barely begun to be questioned.

    And thank you Mary for bringing this fascinating piece of literary history to our attention.

    • Mary Gray on said:

      Thank you for the very thoughtful comment, Paul. I actually have no problem with literature that exalts solitude in nature (I love the romantic poets!) Go back to Jesus in Gethsemane — the spirituality of human alone in nature is timeless.

      However, I find I don’t need to go out into the full-blown wilderness to feel solitude. Just taking a quiet walk down my suburban street, turning a corner into a patch of woods….it’s not John Muir, but it can be healing balm anyway.

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