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,...

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Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 694 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The 1960s and 1970s
The years during which Dillard lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains, keeping her journals and writing...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The fifteen essays or chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are organized into two parallel structures....

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • 1970: On April 22, the first Earth Day is observed, marking a strong interest in environmental issues...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • 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...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published as an unabridged audio book by the American Library Association in 1995. The reading is...

(The entire section is 60 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854, was Dillard’s most important model for Pilgrim at...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Carruth, Hayden. ‘‘Attractions and Dangers of Nostalgia,’’ in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol....

(The entire section is 691 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 488 words.)