Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Tinker Creek is a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Annie Dillard, although born and reared in Pittsburgh, decided to make it her home for several years, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the result. The book records her explorations and observations of the life of nature around the creek, interspersed with her meditations on the intricacies, paradoxes, mysteries, cruelties, and sublimities of the created world, and the unanswered and unanswerable questions about the intentions of the Creator. She is not a disinterested naturalist or scientist, but sees herself as a pilgrim, with her awakened senses ready for any momentary epiphany which may come her way.
The chief actors in this book are animals, insects, birds, and plants, as seen through the eyes of Dillard. Only rarely does another human being intrude into her story, and then only obliquely. The natural world provides drama enough, in numerous small ways. Dillard chances upon a small frog, for example, and as she gazes at it from a distance of a few feet it suddenly sags and crumples like a deflated football; its insides have been sucked out by a giant water bug, and all that remains is a bag of skin. Dillard is appalled; the ruthlessness and cruelty of nature is one of her recurring themes.
Sometimes she creates her own little dramas. She catches sight of a coot in the creek and improvises a game of hide-and-seek, instantly standing stock-still whenever there is a chance...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a series of meditations on Annie Dillard’s illuminating observations of the natural world. In her engaging conversations with herself, Dillard invites readers along as she wanders out, like the bear that went over the mountain, to she what she can see. She sees in the details of nature amazing and enlightening things, things that one would miss without her clear-eyed perspective: sharks outlined in waves of the Atlantic, caterpillar droppings, the green ray at sunset. Her close observation discovers that beauty is all around if people are able to notice it. “The least we can do is try to be there” for the loveliness with which nature surrounds people and the insight to which the details of natural life can lead.
The way to gain that inspiration is to look closely. This author shows how to find what one has been missing of life. Dillard observes things most people do not know enough to look for. People see what they expect to see. She shows readers how to expect more in seeing, to become expert observers, like the herpetologist who finds snakes where the natives never noticed any. Dillard shows how to look curiously as children, cherishingly as lovers, carefully as scientists.
The author sees things that most of people think they see but which they mostly miss, things as close as the bloody ferocity of pet cats, the neighborliness of spiders in the bathtub, and the glory of light through the trees. No...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The fifteen interconnected yet surprisingly independent chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek chronicle the cycle of seasons in and around the place the author identifies as “a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.” This place will not be found on any map, yet no reader would accuse the writer of creating an imaginary stream. Tinker Creek is real and holy to the writer, and Dillard aims to leave the reader believing in Tinker Creek’s existence, continuance, and, ultimately, its importance.
In chronicling the year, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek presents the reader early on with “one of those excellent January partly cloudies.” The book ends at a similar point approximately twelve months later when, in the last chapter, the reader learns, “Today is the winter solstice,” and “Another year has twined away, unrolled and dropped across nowhere.”
In taking the reader through the seasons of this sacred spot, the “pilgrim” narrator reveals little about herself. The reader learns that she smokes, that she reads astonishingly widely, and that she has a cat who jumps in through the bedroom window at night and leaves her covered in bloody paw prints. Except for these few incidental personal details, the reader’s gaze is rarely fixed on the viewer, focusing instead on the viewer’s world, on what is seen. Dillard would have the reader see not herself, but what she sees. Perhaps the most important...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Dillard is often likened to Henry David Thoreau, to whom she refers frequently in her book. Her experience at Tinker Creek is often compared with Thoreau’s self-imposed isolation at Walden Pond. Dillard has resisted seeing herself as a feminist writer, and she said in an interview, “I want to divorce myself from the notion of the female writer right away and then not elaborate.” Despite any protests or disclaimers by the author, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek continues to be considered a feminist text by many readers. It refuses to confine woman to home and hearth, to an inner world. It refuses to define woman in terms of relationships with others. The book also staunchly refuses to privilege one sex as designated explorers of the natural world. Although Dillard’s femaleness, her femininity, are not in the foreground in the text, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek can be seen, on the one hand, as transcending issues of gender, and, on the other hand, as inscribing a place for the solitary woman in the unbounded out-of-doors.
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The 1960s and 1970s
The years during which Dillard lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains, keeping her journals and writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, were among the most turbulent in recent United States history. In the five years before she began writing in 1973, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; the United States withdrew from Vietnam after a long and unsuccessful military action in which tens of thousands of Americans died; the presidency of Richard Nixon had started to unravel because of the scandal known as ‘‘Watergate’’; the nation was feeling the first effects of an energy crisis; an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addressing gender equality issues, was passed by Congress but never ratified by the states.
It is striking, then—and for some critics at the time it was disturbing—that Dillard mentions none of these things in her book. Dillard’s focus is both inward and outward, but her concerns are spiritual, not social or political. She is aware of what is going on in the world; she pores over the newspapers and spends time in the library. She reads and admires the monk Thomas Merton, who balanced a contemplative life with activism against nuclear weapons. But Dillard chooses in this work to direct her gaze away from social concerns, as she explains in...
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The fifteen essays or chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are organized into two parallel structures. The more obvious structure follows the calendar year from January, in the chapters ‘‘Heaven and Earth in Jest’’ and ‘‘Seeing,’’ through spring, summer, and autumn to December 21 in the last chapter, ‘‘The Waters of Separation.’’ The book is meant to resemble a polished journal that the narrator kept of her observations through one year, but in fact, the material was pulled together from twenty volumes of journals that Dillard kept over several years. The calendar year structure, describing the changes in the seasons, is a convention of American nature writing that has been used by Henry David Thoreau, Edwin Way Teale, Henry Beston, Aldo Leopold, and others.
A less obvious structure has been pointed out by Dillard herself and supports her insistence that the book be read as a whole, not as a collection of essays. As quoted in Sandra Humble Johnson’s The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard, Dillard explains that the structure of the book follows the path of the medieval mystic toward God. The first seven chapters represent the via positiva, or ‘‘the journey to God through action & will & materials.’’ In these chapters, Dillard focuses on the beauty and intricacy of nature. After a meditative eighth chapter, ‘‘Intricacy,’’ the...
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Compare and Contrast
1970: On April 22, the first Earth Day is observed, marking a strong interest in environmental issues across the United States.
Today: Although a small group of environmental advocates tries to create a sensation, the thirtieth anniversary of Earth Day receives scant attention in the nation’s newspapers.
1974: Dillard considers submitting her manuscript of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek under the name ‘‘A. Dillard,’’ because she does not believe that a book with theological themes written by a woman will sell many copies.
Today: Although publications by men still outnumber those by women in the fields of religion and philosophy, women are accepted as making important contributions in these disciplines.
1975: Environmental literature is popular with general readers and with critics. Annie Dillard wins the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Gary Snyder wins the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Turtle Island, a collection of nature poems.
Today: Nature writers including Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, and Ann Zwinger reach a small but dedicated readership.
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Topics for Further Study
- Find out more about the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton, who was also a poet and a political activist. What causes did he speak out about? How did he understand the ideal balance between a life of contemplation and a life of activism?
- Read some excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, especially one or two passages in which he gives detailed accounts of his observations of nature. In terms of the amount of precise detail, how do his accounts compare with Dillard’s? How would you compare the conclusions Thoreau and Dillard draw from their observations?
- For a short time, Dillard considered submitting her manuscript to publishers under the name ‘‘A. Dillard’’ so the publishers would assume the author was a man. Do you think this would have fooled them? If you did not know the name of the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, what clues in the text would suggest a female author? Consider language, imagery, and attitude.
- Using balls to represent the Earth and the Sun, demonstrate the meanings of the terms ‘‘winter solstice’’ and ‘‘summer solstice.’’ Explain how the position of the Earth relative to the Sun at each solstice affects the weather where you live.
- Spend an hour or more alone, replicating one of Dillard’s activities: Stalk a muskrat or other animal to see how close you can get; sit still outside at sunrise or sunset and watch the...
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- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published as an unabridged audio book by the American Library Association in 1995. The reading is by Barbara Rosenblat.
- Another unabridged edition on audiocassette, read by Grace Conlin, was produced by Blackstone Audio Books in 1993. This version is no longer available on cassettes, but http://www.audible.com offers it for sale as a downloadable file.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854, was Dillard’s most important model for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In Walden, Thoreau describes the two years he spent living alone in a cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, recording his thoughts and his observations of the natural world through the changing seasons.
- Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1982) is a collection of essays by Dillard. These pieces are similar to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in observing and reflecting on the natural world, but they move beyond Virginia as far away as Ecuador.
- The Writing Life, published in 1989, is Dillard’s exploration of her own creative process and search for an understanding of inspiration. She incorporates literal and metaphorical narratives, including the story of how she composed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
- Terry Tempest Williams’ An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (1995) is a collection of essays about connections between the natural world and our spiritual selves. Most of Williams’s essay are set in the American West, and unlike Dillard, she is ever mindful of her place in a human community.
- Another classic work of American nature writing is Henry Beston’s 1928 book The Outermost...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Carruth, Hayden. ‘‘Attractions and Dangers of Nostalgia,’’ in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, Autumn 1974, p. 640.
Hoffman, Eva. ‘‘Solitude,’’ in Commentary, Vol. 58, October 1974, p. 87.
Lillard, Richard G. ‘‘The Nature Book in Action,’’ in Teaching Environmental Literature: Materials, Methods, Resources, edited by Frederick O. Waage. Modern Language Association of America, 1985, p. 36.
McClintock, James I. ‘‘‘Pray Without Ceasing’: Annie Dillard among the Nature Writers,’’ in Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers, edited by John Cooley. University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 69, 85.
McIlroy, Gary. ‘‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Social Legacy of Walde,’’ in Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers, edited by John Cooley. University of Michigan Press, 1994, p. 100.
Norwood, Vera L. ‘‘Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape,’’ in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. University of Georgia Press, 1996, pp. 325–26.
Parrish, Nancy C. Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers. Louisiana State University Press, 1998, p. 124.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Chenetier, Marc. “Tinkering, Extravagance: Thoreau, Melville, and Annie Dillard.” Critique 31, no. 3 (Spring, 1990): 157-172. Chenetier stresses that “Dillard’s work amply feeds upon classical texts” and notes that Dillard’s readers engage “in a sort of symphonic reading” inasmuch as hearing Dillard’s voice, unmistakable and distinctive as it is, involves hearing numerous other voices.
Clark, Suzanne. “The Woman in Nature and the Subject of Nonfiction.” In Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagody, edited by Chris Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. Clark explores the apparent “lack of self” in Dillard’s prose, the writer’s refusal to emphasize her female identity, and the overlapping voices of “woman, poet, madman and mystic.”
Dillard, Annie. “A Face Aflame: An Interview with Annie Dillard.” Interview by Philip Yancey. Christianity Today 22 (May 5, 1978): 14-19. Dillard identifies her audience as “the unbeliever” yet acknowledges a large readership among people of many religious persuasions. She discusses readers’ reactions to her work and describes herself as someone “grounded strongly in art and weakly in theology.”
Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. New York: Harper & Row, 1982....
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