Dillard never lets the reader lose track of the season under consideration, but much more than a calendar year binds Pilgrim at Tinker Creek together. The book presents the reader with a view of the outer world as it is reconstructed indoors—filtered, sorted, and sifted through the writer’s own inner world. “I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting,” Dillard writes. At one point, Dillard calls her book “a mental ramble” and refers to her mind as a “trivia machine.” “Like the bear who went over the mountain,” she says, I wanted to “see what I could see.”
What Dillard sees and records includes what she has read. Her book includes references to philosophy, religion, insects, Arctic exploration, medicine, poetry, and various other subjects. She devotes several pages to a summary of a book about newly sighted persons and their experience of the world. The pattern of the entire text could perhaps best be described as following the formula “I went here, I saw this, it made me think of this, I saw something else, and then I came home.”
In many ways, Dillard’s text reads like a travelogue. One finds many of that genre’s typical markers: “I set out,” “I go,” “I sit,” “I cross,” “West of the house,” and “north of me.” Yet the book is no more a travelogue than it is a psalm, a field book, a reflection, a diary, a poem, an eyewitness account. The book defies classification in any of the traditional genres. Dillard’s voyage is at once physical and spiritual. The sense of self and the sense of place are inextricably intertwined. Speaking of the creek, Dillard says, “I come to it as to an oracle; I return to it as a man years later will seek out the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm.”
Dillard has been compared with a number of writers, including Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Valery. It is to the Jesuit poet-priest Hopkins that Dillard pays most homage in her work. One hears echoes of “God’s Grandeur” when Dillard maintains that “the whole world sparks and flames.” Dillard evokes “The Windhover” when she speaks of “the most beautiful day of the year,” which leaves her with “a dizzying, drawn sensation.” She quotes several lines from one of Hopkins’ lesser-known works, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Her closing lines of the book also evoke Hopkins as she returns to the opening image of her book—the cat that makes the bloody paw prints. The encounter leaves her, as does her encounter with the larger world, “bloodied and mauled, wrung, dazzled, drawn.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek also contains references to Andrew Marvell, William Blake, Robert Burns, and Dylan Thomas.
Dillard’s tonal ranges include the sober, the philosophical, the flippant, and the celebratory. She can be exacting in her observations, yet she can also be carefree, as can be seen in this early statement: “I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs.” She frequently uses a light-hearted tone to offset her serious and, at times, terrifying subject matter. This lighter tone can be heard in such statements as “Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.” Dillard sees around her both the horrible and the humorous. She chooses to share both in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. At times the reader gets both in one breath. Speaking of the endless variety in nature, she observes, “No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque,” and she counters with, “you ain’t so handsome yourself.”