Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
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; 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...
(The entire section contains 5492 words.)
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