(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Faith and Spirituality
As the first word of the title suggests, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is primarily a book about seeking God. A ‘‘pilgrim’’ may be merely a person who travels, but more commonly the word is used to describe someone who travels to a holy place. For the narrator, the creek itself is as sacred as a church; it is here that she encounters God’s grace in its purest form: ‘‘So many things have been shown me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags.’’ In using water as a symbol of God’s presence and grace, Dillard is drawing on centuries of religious tradition.

Throughout the book, Dillard balances the seemingly opposing forces of heaven and Earth, of God as the creator of beauty and of horror. Much of the imagery in the book is of the beauty and complexity of nature, reflecting God’s grace. In every sunset, every egg case, every snake skin, the narrator sees God’s generosity. But at times, reading about a praying mantis that has devoured her mate or contemplating hoards of parasites, she rails against the cruelties of nature, asking, ‘‘What kind of a world is this, anyway?’’ She wonders whether the mystery of cruelty is not part of God’s plan. ‘‘It could be,’’ she muses, that God has spread ‘‘a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.’’ She seems to conclude that, ultimately, humans must accept the contradictions of this world—must embrace death and darkness as part of the cycle of life and light.

Dillard has carefully studied the Bible, as demonstrated by the many biblical quotations and allusions throughout the book. But essential to Dillard’s vision is the belief that the natural world is also a vehicle for spiritual insight. Just as the narrator has had to train herself to stalk wild animals to be in their presence, so she must also stalk God, seeking Him out where He is and as He is.

Individual and Society
A recurring idea in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the narrator’s belief that she must choose between embracing nature and embracing human society. In fact, she does not seem to have close ties with any living humans. She alludes occasionally to playing baseball or pinochle—games that cannot be played in solitude—but she never names her companions. She is aware of neighborhood boys, and she knows the names of the people who own the property along Tinker Creek and of those who are endangered by the flood. But there is no strong feeling, positive or negative, expressed in any of her human contacts. While a puppy or a sunrise can leave her breathless, people do not.

Her isolation is both inevitable and intentional. On the one hand, she feels unlike other people. She does not know others who rhapsodize as she does over slugs and spiders, and at times she feels like ‘‘a freak.’’ More importantly, she has willed herself to be alone, to live in the world of nature instead of the world of the city. She has experienced both, and remembers in ‘‘The...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)