Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

by Annie Dillard

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Present’’ the ‘‘human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained.’’ But human connection is a distraction, making it difficult to live in the present. In the same chapter, she almost drifts away into a memory of dancing and music years before, and she...

(This entire section contains 1314 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

forcefully wills herself to abandon the memory: ‘‘I stir. The heave of my shoulders returns me to the present … and I yank myself away, shove off, seeking live water.’’

Although the persona who explores Tinker Creek from January to December 1972 lives alone with only goldfish and spiders for company Annie Dillard was married and living with her husband at the time she wrote the book. She spent a great deal of time volunteering in her community, meeting with a writing group, and socializing with friends. The solitude of the narrator is, therefore, an intentional creation of the writer. As the narrator explains in ‘‘Fecundity,’’ ‘‘I must go down to the creek again. It is where I belong, although as I become closer to it, my fellows appear more and more freakish, and my home in the library more and more limited. Imperceptibly at first, and now consciously, I shy away from the arts, from the human emotional stew.’’

Although it does not seem to be what Dillard intended, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is perhaps most frequently read as a piece of nature writing. The book is filled with narratives, descriptions, and unusual facts about a catalog of plants and animals. Some of the most famous passages in the book come from the writer’s own observations; for example the description of the tomcat with bloody paws, the frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug, or the young muskrat floating on its back. Dillard is just as vivid when her narrator is retelling an observation she has read somewhere else: J. Henri Fabre’s caterpillars walking a never-ending circular trail around the mouth of a vase, or his female praying mantis mating with a male whose head she has already eaten. For many readers, these glimpses of the world outside are valuable in themselves, without symbolizing anything beyond the literal.

On a practical level, the reader of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek learns a great deal about the natural world, primarily about the flora and fauna in the area around Tinker Creek. Readers who care to learn may gather enough information to begin their own explorations—to identify a monarch butterfly pupa or a sycamore tree. They may also put together an impressive reading list of some of the books from which Dillard has taught herself. Dillard combines her own observations with those of other writers to produce a record of the changing natural world through the calendar year, from January to December. In doing so, and in making it seem so beautiful and fascinating, she encourages the reader to do the same. Dillard has learned much of her natural history from reading books, and her own book similarly instructs her readers.

Science and Technology
As she pieces together an understanding of God and the natural world, the narrator also considers what science can and cannot tell her. Repeatedly, she looks through microscopes or telescopes, using technology to see things that the naked eye cannot reveal. Several of her stories, including the account of the caterpillars following each other around the rim of a vase, demonstrate knowledge gained through scientific experimentation. In her acceptance of animal behavior in all its seeming cruelty, the narrator exhibits a scientist’s objectivity. But she is fully aware of the limits of science. In ‘‘Stalking,’’ for example, she discusses the principle of indeterminacy, which governs the study of atomic particles. The more scientists learn, she says, the more they become aware that they can never truly know: ‘‘we know now for sure that there is no knowing.… The use of instruments and the very fact of an observer seem to bollix [bungle]the observations; as a consequence, physicists are saying that they cannot study nature per se, but only their own investigation of nature.’’

Dillard comes back to the limits of science several times throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Ultimately, the impossibility of knowing everything both frustrates and comforts the narrator. She would like to find things out, and she keeps returning to books and to observation, but she will never know it all. On the other hand, the very fact of the world being beyond human comprehension is, for her, confirmation of the existence of God.