Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

by Annie Dillard

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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, in a manner that is typical of the whole book, on an imperfect, torn world in which everything is “nibbled and nibbling.”

The book covers a year of such physical and mental meanderings, organized loosely around the passage of the seasons. Dillard will often break off her thoughts or her narrative and recall a significant event from another time and season; sometimes she flashes back to an incident in her childhood which sheds light on her present thoughts. A number of chapters are organized around a particular theme. In “Fixity,” for example, she puzzles over the inability of many insects to alter their instinctive rituals even when those rituals have clearly ceased to be in their own interests. (Caterpillars will trail endlessly, playing follow-the-leader, around the rim of a vase, even when they are close to starvation and food supplies are nearby.)

Such bits of information are culled from Dillard’s wide reading in the works of naturalists and explorers, mystics and quantum physicists, works which she shares enthusiastically with her reader. These sources complement her direct observations and supply another dimension to her thoughts. They feed her love of statistics and her passion for intricate detail. She enjoys divulging, for example, that there are 228 separate muscles in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth; that in the top inch of forest soil there are an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot;...

(This entire section contains 876 words.)

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that water moving up a tree trunk can climb 150 feet in an hour; that a large elm makes as many as six million leaves in one season; and that the growing power of an expanding squash exerts a lifting force of five thousand pounds per square inch.

Stylistically, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has two aspects. On the one hand, Dillard is informal, conversational, and sometimes colloquial. She has a keen sense of humor and enjoys telling a joke or a story. Frequently she addresses the reader directly, and her persona is that of the honest inquirer and earnest seeker who is thinking out loud, with all the intellectual vigor she possesses, about the implications of what she sees. She can also be iconoclastic and irreverent, not afraid of offering the Creator some blunt suggestions about how He might have improved His handiwork.

On the other hand, Dillard’s prose is often richly poetic, dense with images, and allusive. She thinks effortlessly in similes, many of them highly arresting: a praying mantis about to disgorge its eggs looks like “a hideous, harried mother slicking up a fat daughter for a beauty pageant,” and when the eggs emerge they are like “tapioca pudding glued to a thorn.” Termite workers look like “tiny longshoremen unloading the Queen Mary”; the forests which end up as a coal bed with 120 seams must have “heaped like corpses in drawers” as they fell; and a menacing swollen creek thrashes around “like a blacksnake caught in a kitchen drawer.” Whether poetic or conversational, figurative or natural, Dillard’s language is always alert, fresh, and as fecund as the nature she studies so intently.

Form and Content

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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 detail is too minute for her notice, and no notice is insignificant. She is not only an onlooker but an “inlooker” as well, discovering how much there is in details where most people do not even perceive the details. She looks at things honestly and shows unhesitatingly how fierce the natural world can be. She describes unflinchingly the death throes of the mating praying mantis, the horrors of parasites such as the giant water bug sucking the juices out of a frog, and wolves so hungry that they cannot resist licking the blubber from an exposed knife and slicing their tongues until they bleed to death.

Yet, Dillard relates with equal clarity the grace and beauty of the natural world, and how that beauty can help people live more abundantly, more intensely and with awareness of the present moment. Where most people notice only a cedar tree with sunlight shining through its branches, she recognizes life transfigured. She urges the reader to make the most of the light, to “catch the solar wind” and “spread your spirit.” “Seeing,” the pivotal second chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, encourages readers in its every deeply envisioned line: See better and live better. See well enough and see God.

Form and Content

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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 thing that the reader learns about Dillard is that she has an infinite capacity for wonder and surprise—twin capacities that she uses to reawaken the same responses in her readers.

Dillard initially set her book in Maine and made the narrator a young man, but her editors eventually convinced her to do otherwise. In a taped interview with Kay Bonetti in 1989, she recounts living in a tent one fall in Maine and doing little else but reading. Among the books she was reading was one in which the writer referred to lightning bugs and to his ignorance of how they worked. Realizing that she knew how lightning bugs worked and that she knew much more about the natural world and writing than this writer did, Dillard concluded, “I should be writing this book.”

Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while she was in her late twenties. She completed the book in less than a year, working from her collection of about nineteen journals. She wrote from December to August, and she recalls of that time, “I was not living then, I was just writing. I would never do it again. It was like fighting a war.”

The book has been labeled a collection of essays, a designation that displeases Dillard. She insists that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a sustained narrative. Another designation that Dillard finds particularly distasteful is meditation. She believes that the term “meditation” suggests randomness and passiveness and ignores Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’s muscularity.

Throughout her book, which is inscribed simply “For Richard,” Dillard offers an account of what she sees, and she presents the reader with an eye and a voice that, while never mistaken for masculine, resist overtly proclaiming themselves feminine. It is perhaps in its uncompromising validation of personal vision—anyone’s vision—that the book makes its greatest contribution.

Dillard refuses to present a sanitized, airbrushed view of nature to the reader. In addition to the beauties of a mockingbird’s free fall and the tree with the lights in it, the reader also witnesses the giant water beetle that sucks the life from its victim and the praying mantis that beheads and devours its partner during mating. “It’s rough out there,” Dillard reminds the reader repeatedly.

Dillard writes seemingly with no set agenda. She frankly admits, “We don’t know what’s going on here.” She adds thatOur life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. . . . We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.


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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.

Historical Context

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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 ‘‘Intricacy’’: ‘‘I would like to see it all, to understand it, but I must start somewhere, so I try to deal with the giant water bug in Tinker Creek and the flight of three hundred redwings from an Osage orange, with the goldfish bowl and the snakeskin, and let those who dare worry about the birthrate and population explosion among solar systems.’’

Nature Writing Although Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has proven difficult for readers to categorize, it is most often located in the genre of nature writing. Nature writing is not so strictly defined as the sonnet or the novel, but there are several criteria that critics agree upon. Generally, nature writing is nonfiction prose set in the wilderness or in a rural area. Its primary focus is on accurate but beautifully rendered descriptions of the natural phenomena that occur in one limited place, not on political or social commentary. The speaker or narrator of a piece of nature writing reports her own observations; she does not interfere with nature, but carefully and patiently records every detail. Most importantly, she is well-educated and checks her facts. It is not enough to write gushing prose about the beauty of a heron at sunset; the nature writer must have enough scientific knowledge to place the scene in its biological, climatological, and even cosmological context.

Early English writers, who lacked what we would consider today to be basic scientific knowledge of the world, must have found nature to be as unpredictable and frightening as it was beautiful and awe-inspiring. They did not know much about the natural world except how it affected them, and in accordance with Judeo-Christian thought of the time, they believed that humans were set apart from nature by God—apart from it and above it. Images of nature in literature tended to be used as a backdrop for more important human activity, or as a symbol of human emotions and spirit. In these works, nature exists to serve and to represent humans. Details about flowers or birds or mountains tend to be vague and impressive, rather than detailed and accurate. Writers and readers alike had little knowledge about the behavior of muskrats, and little interest in obtaining more. What was more important was what a muskrat could represent—mystery, or industry, or beauty, or danger.

In the nineteenth century, however, two important books changed the way writers and others looked at the natural world, and became the origins of what is today called nature writing or environmental literature. The first book, published in 1845, by Henry David Thoreau, was Walden, or, Life in the Woods. Walden, considered one of the classic works of American literature, is an account of two years Thoreau spent living in a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau combines passages of reflection on daily life, government, and society with passages of close examination of worms and beans and rain. Others had looked at nature objectively, and for its own sake, without attributing human characteristics to it, but Thoreau’s work was so beautifully written and clearly argued that it reached a large audience and endured.

The second important book was Charles Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin’s book proposed for the first time that humans, and all living creatures, have evolved over time from previous species. It is difficult for us today to understand how shocking this idea was for Darwin’s first readers. Darwin was saying that humans are not above nature, but a part of it; he claimed that life has evolved in a continuing pattern, rather than being set down on earth for the pleasure and use of humans. With this new sense of nature and humankind’s role in it, there came a new interest in studying and classifying the natural world, in understanding it on its own terms.

The tradition of nature writing in the United States can be traced to the journals and essays of the earliest explorers in the New World. The most important works include Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1845); John Muir’s The Mountains of California (1894); Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain (1903); and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949). The last third of the twentieth century saw a new wave of nature writing, and it is this movement in which Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is frequently placed. Some critics have taken issue with Dillard’s identification as a nature writer because of what Linda Smith, author of Annie Dillard in Twayne’s United States Authors Series, calls her ‘‘consistent—even stubborn—devotion to traditional Christianity’’ and her ‘‘concern with aesthetics.’’ But many critics have gone so far as to rank Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as John Tallmadge did in his essay ‘‘Beyond the Excursion: Initiatory Themes in Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams,’’ as one of ‘‘the most powerful works to appear in the current renaissance of American nature writing.’’

Literary Style

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Structure 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 last seven chapters represent the via negativa, or ‘‘the spirit’s revulsion at time and death.’’ In this half of the book, beginning with the destruction of ‘‘Flood,’’ Dillard’s anecdotes are more negative, focusing more on parasites, poisons, and death.

SettingPilgrim at Tinker Creek is set, as the title suggests, ‘‘by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge’’ in the year 1972. The creek is outside the small town of Hollins, home of Hollins College. Dillard completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Hollins College and lived near Tinker Creek for nine years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the book appears to be a factual representation of place and time, the real Tinker Creek is not so isolated and wild as readers may assume. Through careful selection of detail, Dillard makes the area seem quiet, undeveloped, and largely uninhabited. Compare the impression of wilderness Dillard creates for this book to the way she describes the same locations in a later essay, ‘‘Living Like Weasels’’: ‘‘This is, mind you, suburbia. It is a five-minute walk in three directions to rows of houses, though none is visible here. There’s a 55 m.p.h. highway at one end of the pond, and a nesting pair of wood ducks at the other.… The far end is an alternating series of fields and woods, fields and woods, threaded everywhere with motorcycle tracks.’’ For Pilgrim, she has narrowed her focus to specific moments and specific images, leaving out the details that work against her purpose. The setting of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is, therefore, a slightly fictionalized version of a real place.

Similarly, the book appears to record the events of one calendar year, 1972. Obviously, the chapters also include information from the narrator’s reading and from her past. The stories from her own past are clearly tagged with phrases like ‘‘several years ago’’ or ‘‘once.’’ These narratives are written in the past tense. Narratives that are meant to be immediate (‘‘I am sitting’’) or very recent (‘‘yesterday’’) are presented as though they occurred in the order told and within one year. These observations actually occurred over a period of several years.

Although Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is classified as nonfiction, it has elements of fiction in its setting. It has the appearance of a journal or an autobiography, but it is not one. Rather, it is a series of reflections set into a journal form.

Figurative Language One of the most admired qualities of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the beauty and power of its language. Dillard studied creative writing at Hollins College and has published two volumes of poetry. Her concern with figurative or ‘‘poetic’’ language is apparent on every page. Because nature is so evocative for Dillard, she uses grand language to describe it, particularly when she is awed. Describing her reaction to ‘‘the tree with the lights in it,’’ she writes, ‘‘The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.’’ In this line, she is speaking metaphorically, especially with the verbs ‘‘open,’’ ‘‘roars’’ and ‘‘slam.’’ The line is made more powerful by the repetition of ‘‘comes and goes, mostly goes’’ and ‘‘I live for it, for the moment,’’ and the unusual word ‘‘spate’’ elevates the line further. This line and countless others like it strike many readers as more like poetry than like prose.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

Reimer, Margaret Loewen. ‘‘The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ in Critique, Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring 1983, pp. 182–91.

Smith, Linda L. Annie Dillard, Twayne, 1991, p. 42.

Tallmadge, John. ‘‘Beyond the Excursion: Initiatory Themes in Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams,’’ in Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and Environment, edited by Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson, and Scott Slovic. University of Idaho Press, 1998, p. 197.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Dover Thrift, 1995, pp. 65–67, 72.

Welty, Eudora. Review in New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1974, p. 4.

Further Reading 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. 69–86. In this brief essay, McClintock locates two of Dillard’s books, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, within the tradition of American nature writing, focusing on the religious elements of her writing.

Norwood, Vera L. ‘‘Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape,’’ in Environmental Review: An International Journal of History and the Humanities, Vol. 8, Spring 1984, pp. 23–31. Norwood traces the differences between men’s and women’s nature writing in the United States, claiming that while men seek to dominate and conquer the landscape, women tend to embrace and defend it. This article examines writings by Dillard, Rachel Carson, Isabella Bird, and Mary Austin.

Parrish, Nancy L. Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers. Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Parrish explores the work and lives of a remarkable group of women writers who attended Hollins College in Virginia in the early 1970s. In a chapter entitled ‘‘Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ she tells some of the stories behind the writing and reveals more intimate personal information than Dillard gives in her own autobiographical works.

Radford, Dawn Evans. ‘‘Annie Dillard: A Bibliographical Survey,’’ in Bulletin of Bibliography, Vol. 51, No. 2, June 1994, pp. 181–94. Radford provides an overview of Dillard’s career and of the central issues addressed by critics of her work, followed by an annotated bibliography of nearly two hundred of the most important primary and secondary works. Radford’s annotations are succinct and substantive, making this bibliography invaluable for research.

Smith, Linda L. Annie Dillard. Twayne’s United States Authors Series, 1987. Smith’s overview is an excellent starting place for students who wish to learn more about Dillard’s life and work. In jargon-free and engaging prose, it presents a brief biography, a chapter about each of Dillard’s major books, a chronology of important dates, and an annotated bibliography.

Tietjen, Elaine. ‘‘Perceptions of Nature: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ in the North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 101–13. Tietjen gives a personal response to her reading of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, comparing Dillard’s reactions to the natural world with her own. Tietjen also had the opportunity to take a class taught by Dillard. She attempts in this essay to make sense of the differences between her idealized conception of Dillard and the real woman and to move beyond her first awestruck reading of the work.


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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. In fourteen essays, many of which have been anthologized, Dillard explores themes introduced earlier in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Dunn, Robert Paul. “The Artist as Nun: Theme, Tone, and Vision in the Writings of Annie Dillard.” Studia Mystica 1, no. 4 (1978): 17-31. Dunn suggests that Dillard’s works “are important because they suggest the possibility and value of recapturing in our materialistic age the beauty and pain of mystical vision.” He explores Dillard’s remarkable ability to speak convincingly to agnostics and believers alike, and her adoption of the dual role of artist and nun.

McIlroy, Gary. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Social Legacy of Walden.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring, 1986): 111-122. McIlroy describes the immediate environment around Tinker Creek and demonstrates that the boundaries between nature and society are anything but fixed. He addresses Dillard’s detachment or “social isolation” and the critics who fault Dillard for not writing a political text. He finds in Dillard a “detachment from society as well as [an] acknowledgement of the common bond of all living things.” He notes, “Like a prophet, she travels alone.”

Maddocks, Melvin. “Terror and Celebration.” Time 117 (March 18, 1974): 78. Maddocks warns: “Reader, beware of this deceptive girl, mouthing her piety. . . . Here is no gentle romantic twirling a buttercup.” He adds that “Miss Dillard is stalking the reader as surely as any predator stalks its game.” Maddocks concludes that what Dillard achieves in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is “a remarkable psalm of terror and celebration.”

Scheick, William J. “Annie Dillard: Narrative Fringe.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Scheick proposes that Dillard’s statement “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery” forms the thesis of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and other of her works. Includes a bibliography of Dillard’s writings.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide