Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 of the coot seeing her and taking flight. Shy coot and cunning coot-watcher, disguised as a tree whenever necessity demands, continue this unusual game for forty minutes.

She has learned the virtues of stealth and patience. She stalks a muskrat and gets within arm’s reach of it; oblivious of her presence, it munches clumps of grass. She has also learned to be bold. Encountering a poisonous copperhead snake one night at a quarry, she watches it silently from a distance of four feet, knowing that it is aware of her presence. As she watches, a mosquito alights on the snake and feeds on it for several minutes, an event which astonishes Dillard and prompts her to reflect,...

(The entire section is 876 words.)