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Looking for answers about God by a small stream in Virginia
on 30 January 2017
It may the bias of an old man, but I am amazed that this book was written by a twenty-seven year old. There is a stillness and centredness in it which I do not associate with the energy of youth. There is a contradiction in the title: classically, pilgrims move on - they are on a journey. Annie Dillard stays where she is - the whole book grows out of her year-long observations in a tiny bit of rural Virginia. The pilgrimage is an inward one as she reflects on what she observes in and around a creek that runs near her home. Occasionally she lifts her gaze to the horizon, but for the most part her attention is focussed on the small, even the minute, manifestations of life in the water, on the banks, in the bushes. And she reads scientific literature, so that her amazement about what she sees is enhanced by a deeper understanding of what is going on beyond her vision. Some of the nature writing is exquisite, some of it I passed over fairly quickly - it is a book you could dip in to if you wanted, although I found myself reading it from end to end. It must be a nightmare for a librarian to decide how to categorise this book on the shelves. Fundamentally, it is not a "nature book". Probably it would have to go under Theology. She is fascinated by the profligacy of nature; she is overwhelmed not just by the sheer number of creatures she find and their variety, but also by the exquisite and apparently unnecessary detail of, for example, a leaf or the fin of a small fish. The creator, she concludes, must be "a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital". At the end of day, however, its is not the profligacy of nature which stays with me, but its cruelty. There are two scenarios that she returns to several times. One is of a praying mantis munching the belly of a wasp which in turn is sucking the honey out a bee during its death throws. The other is of a frog being sucked dry to the point of total dehydration by a bug which has attached itself to the unfortunate victim. She notes that ten percent of al living creatures are parasitic. What sort of Creator has given us this world? What she sees is "an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god." This is not a plea for atheism but rather a challenge to comfortable Sunday School images of a benign God who has created the best of possible worlds. And there are no easy answers for those like myself who hold on to a faith perspective on the big questions of life. I finished the book feeling quite overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of our world - and feeling rather more wary of the God I worship. He's not to be messed with.