Essays and Criticism
The Role of Reading in Dillard’s Vision of the Student of Nature
The term nature writing refers to the work of those writers since the time of Thoreau and Darwin who have consciously tried to go out into nature, look at it closely, and report what they see, without sentimentalizing or anthropomorphizing, without getting in the way of the natural events they observe, and without using nature as a backdrop for a political or social commentary. It is into this genre of writing that Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is usually classified. Dillard wrote her master’s thesis on Walden, and used Thoreau’s book as a model for her own.
Dillard’s reliance on Thoreau is interesting in many ways. Looking at both books together, readers can learn a great deal about how the world changed in the hundred or so years between publications. What information was available to Dillard that Thoreau did not have? What were the new advancements in science? What had naturalists observed and recorded about the behaviors of living creatures? To what extent can a person step out of the technological world and encounter nature purely, on its own terms? All of these are interesting questions, worthy of consideration. But this essay is more interested in something that binds Thoreau and Dillard together across the span of a hundred years: their lives as readers and writers. Although they believe that people must clear their minds and open their hearts to nature, without...
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‘‘The Waters of Separation’’: Myth and Ritual in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Postmodernism and the Sacred
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d halfawakened. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.
It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence….
So begins Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One sentence later we read:
These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final...
(The entire section is 9057 words.)
Perceptions of Nature: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
She stared as if she were about to tell me that she dreamed last night of hanging in space above our blue planet. With her leather jacket, loose wool pants, serious hiking boots, and a collecting pouch slung over her neck, she looked the perfect image of the woodswoman I desperately wanted to become. Her cornsilk hair was lit up like a lamp. Annie Dillard sat on a ledge in a clearing, beckoning the reader to come into her woods. I held her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on my lap in the back of an old bus, headed for Canyonlands.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of three books I took into the wilderness for a semester of expeditions in the Rockies. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac both waited in my pack. Up until two weeks before, I had never heard of Dillard, but the sheer force of her image on the cover convinced me to buy her book. The cover said Pilgrim was ‘‘a mystical excursion into the natural world.’’ So I read it first. I was glad the trip to...
(The entire section is 5906 words.)