Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Dillard touches on all the important themes that would continue to inform her writing. At first glance, this book might appear to be a collection of occasional essays that track the changing seasons through one calendar year. In fact, that is how some critics have viewed this work: as essays on the perplexities of nature. While the book does take up this theme again and again, it is not for the simple pleasure of holding up a quirk of nature for its thrill value.

Dillard carefully built this volume after months of painstaking observation of and research about both metaphysics and the natural world. The rhythms of the book are tightly controlled and depend on recurrent images and themes that surface over and over, allowing Dillard to focus on the key issues at the heart of the narrator’s personal journey. As much as anything, this book is about seeing and about gaining the ability to see within oneself, into the surrounding world, and beyond to the divinity that informs the world.

The book opens with a startling image of violence, creation, and death in a description of the bloody paw prints left on the narrator by her returning tomcat. The world Dillard sees as she looks out from her cabin beside Tinker Creek in Virginia is one in which little seems to make obvious sense. Wherever Dillard turns, she sees the raw, brutal power of nature to reproduce itself, and she finds the sheer exuberance of the natural world startling, overwhelming, and stupefying. She cannot look at an insect laying its eggs, for example, without being reminded of all the instances in the insect kingdom where the mother devours its mate, its eggs, or its young—or is food for them in return for giving them life.

What is the point, Dillard asks, in bothering to replicate oneself only to serve as grist for the mill, food for the soon-to-be-born? In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard questions a god that would set such a horror show in motion, and she wonders how one can go on in the face of such depressing statistics: No matter what, everyone must die.

Yet Dillard wants to find an answer that will allow her to celebrate rather than be repulsed by what she sees. Rather than being only a collection of essays about her observations of the natural world, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek traces the author’s abundance and vitality. By looking carefully at the world around her confined neighborhood of Tinker Creek, Dillard discovers a pattern and gains some conviction that there is something more going on than a mad dance of death. She learns to see beyond the particular individual, past the moment, to a larger picture.

While some readers will find her answers depressing, others will discover that Dillard achieves an acceptance of what she sees around her. Unlike many others, who look on the violence of nature and see no possibility for a divine plan, Dillard comes to believe that the endless cycle—birth, death, and transformation into atoms of other beings—is in itself a way of gaining transcendence over death and achieving immortality.

Certain central natural images, such as her cat’s bloody paw prints, surface again and again after Dillard has once told their story. For example, she stands transfixed beside the creek, at first seeing the water and a frog that appears to collapse into itself as she looks on. Then her eyes shift focus, and she sees the giant waterbug that has just finished draining its captured frog. This picture of the malign side of nature hovering immediately below an apparently tranquil and innocent surface is one which Dillard will revisit time and time again. Dillard sees the death’s head behind the living form many times; she confronts nature’s seeming blind preference for the species over the individual. She sees things up close and notices the ragged wings, the frayed leaves, the living things being ground to dust. A more timid person would have given up and perhaps turned suicidal. Dillard, however, continued to look for answers, realizing that there is more to nature than the surface turmoil and violence.

In one chapter, Dillard recounts the story of a young woman who was born without sight. When surgery allows the woman to see for the first time as a young adult, she at first cannot see anything, then she begins to see but cannot comprehend or distinguish one image from another, then she sees in distorted fashion because she has yet to gain the experience by which to interpret what her eyes show her. Thus, when the young woman is asked to describe the tree outside her hospital room that so fascinates her, she talks about a tree with lights in it. To her untutored, inexperienced eyes, the focal point is the spaces between the tree’s leaves backlit by the sun. The young woman sees the world from a fresh perspective, one denied most of us who have been “taught” how to “see”—to focus on what is deemed “important.” This story serves as a central parable in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and is an image to which Dillard returns many times in the book, serving as her metaphor for that which she seeks in her journey through the natural world. She is looking for the divine power behind the everyday; its discovery is something that she comes to realize happens infrequently at best, but it does happen. When Dillard least expects it, the force behind the universe shines out and nearly blinds her.

In a sense, Dillard had to suffer through the deep, pessimistic despair she describes in many chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek so that she could emerge with the understanding she attains by the book’s final chapter, “The Waters of Separation.” Like many mystics before her, Dillard had to despair of ever finding God before she could apprehend the presence of the divine. By showing her readers the power, might, and violence of the world of Tinker Creek, she takes them along with her on her quest to make sense of a seemingly senseless world. She gains freedom or salvation by recognizing that she is a part of the great dance of birth and death that she has so carefully recorded.

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