Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 10 : Fecundity | Summary



It is late June when Dillard awakens shouting from a nightmare. Two moths mate and lay thousands of eggs that hatch in her bed and produce slimy fish. "I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls," she writes. Perhaps that "extravagant abundance" sends the message life is cheap and everything will die one day. She recites examples of fecundity in nature, appalled by animal, not plant, fecundity; she concludes she can "like it and call it birth and regeneration," or she can see it as a manifestation of hell. She chooses the latter path and now thinks her earlier view of the world has been too optimistic. The intricacy she celebrated earlier can be seen as a "mindless stutter," not evidence of thought or creator.

Describing in lurid detail the mating practices of mantises, termites, and parasitic wasps, Dillard concludes, "The pressure of growth among animals is a kind of terrible hunger." She singles out for special mention ichneumon flies, whose eggs hatch inside the mother and devour her alive.

Birth isn't bad enough; she also lists the variety of gruesome deaths awaiting lower animals. "We are escapees," she says of the living. "We wake in terror, eat in hunger, sleep with a mouthful of blood." The "key point," then, is "evolution loves death," but human values do not; therefore Dillard's and others' values are "diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves." Nature cares nothing for the individual.

These thoughts lead to a difficult question: must she abandon the creek life she loves? She decides not to, reasoning beauty and horror both spring from the same excesses and extravagances. Indeed one cannot exist without the other. Death, destruction, "nonbeing" all seem "baked" into creation, responsible for giving it shape and beauty, but they are ultimately responsible as well for causing it to explode. "The terms are clear," she says. "If you want to live, you have to die."


Dillard isn't kidding when she says this is the start of the via negativa, the negative approach to God. In this chapter she earns her reputation as a type of horror writer, cataloging some revolting facts and images from nature.

In doing so she uses one of the simplest literary techniques—repetition. There is power in saying something over and over, as anyone who has read nursery rhymes or listened to popular song lyrics can attest. But Dillard uses repetition in a more complex and sophisticated way throughout this chapter to create a sense of visceral repugnance. She doesn't repeat the same word or phrase. Instead, she repeats a similar concept, citing one example after another of rampant fertility in the world of nature. She bombards readers with a relentless litany of eggs, larvae, spores, and slimy newborns. She quotes statistics indicating how many root hairs exist in a tiny clump of soil and how even vegetables grow at such a pace so startling as to exert thousands of pounds of pressure per inch.

Dillard devotes the entire chapter to extending this list of natural excess. At first it seems as if her obsession has caused her to lose literary control, and she uses the analogy of the train engineer to explain what seems like nature's recklessness in creation. But a closer reading reveals all this repetition is intentional, carefully orchestrated to create a specific effect. The more examples she cites, the greater the sense of revulsion and horror. The extravagance she celebrated in the first half of the book now unnerves and depresses her; "the creek is not buoying me up but dragging me down." She wrestles with the existence of suffering, trying to decide whether it upsets her enough to cause her to reject nature and return to the world of people.

Ultimately and despite all the examples to the contrary, Dillard decides to leave "the library," her term for human culture, and return to the creek. Although she hasn't completely come to terms with the suffering and death that are ubiquitous in the world, she decides she has been too squeamish. She may not like it, but she feels forced to accept this inescapable fact: everything that lives must die, including herself.

In subsequent chapters, Dillard will continue to examine the issue of suffering in a way directly linked with her understanding of God. The problem of pain, as the British writer C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) phrased it—the question of how a benevolent God can permit suffering—discussed within writing a theodicy, is at the thematic heart of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but in this chapter Dillard blames evolution, not God, for the wasteful extravagance of nature's fecundity.

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