Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 11 : Stalking | Summary



As July arrives, Dillard immediately starts talking about the Eskimos, whose lives fascinate her. In keeping with the chapter title, she focuses on their unique and sometimes cruel hunting practices. She abruptly returns to her own life at the creek, complaining about the summer heat, but says she too is stalking. Unlike the Eskimos, however, she does not chase her prey. She stands and waits in place, "emptied," in the via negativa.

Dillard recounts an incident at the bridge when, despite her smoking and making noise, a muskrat got within an arm's length of her. For 40 minutes they sat side by side, his unawareness of her making her feel as if she didn't exist either. This lack of self-awareness happens to her as "second nature" now and is invigorating. For Dillard stalking is slowing down her breathing, being still, and retreating not within but outside herself.

Then she moves to quantum mechanics, mentioning the German physicist and Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg (1901–76) and his Principle of Indeterminacy: one can know the location of a subatomic particle or the speed at which it is moving, but never both. Physicists have become mystics, Dillard says, and the physical world is more like the ever-changing Tinker Creek than the seemingly imperturbable mountains behind it.

She also says in the Old Testament God tells Moses something similar. Moses can see God's face, or he can live; he cannot do both. Moses chooses to see God's "back parts" instead and live with longing. Dillard interprets this concept to mean those who seek God are stalkers who forever will feel a sense of "denial." Nevertheless she will wait. Sometimes all she will be granted is a fleeting vision of the creator's back parts. But perhaps her patience will be rewarded, as it was with the muskrats.


The via negativa Dillard uses to shape the second half of the book is expressed in a markedly different way here than it is in Chapter 10. There she undermined readers' sense of the beauty of nature with a remorseless recitation of ghastly births and deaths. Here she no longer lingers on these, instead focusing on a quieter, calmer kind of negative inquiry. She writes about stalking as a waiting period requiring patience, not as an aggressive hunt. For her this kind of waiting has two rewards. Not only is she rewarded by finding what she seeks, whether a muskrat or something of the divine, but she also is rewarded with a profound inner change. She calls this a "lack of self-awareness," and although it may sound like a deficit, it is anything but a deficit to Dillard. Indeed she loses her identity in "stalking" something else, in focusing all her attention on something outside herself. She experiences it in that needed sense of otherness as a blessed gift apart from the self.

A parallel emerges between the tale Dillard tells about trying to spot fish in the creek and her discussion of quantum physics. She foreshadows what is she going to tell readers about the Indeterminacy Principle when she writes, "The very act of trying to see fish makes them almost impossible to see." Although Dillard allows readers to make this connection for themselves, the similarity is clear. Spotting the fish is like spotting a subatomic particle: try to see it in one place, and it becomes impossible to see it in another. These are the limitations to knowledge she has come to accept.

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