Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 13 : The Horns of the Altar | Summary



Summer is dying in mid-September. When Dillard sits on a ledge at a nearby quarry, she is surprised to find a baby copperhead, only 12 inches long. She watches in fascination as a mosquito bites the snake, concluding we are all "nibbled and being nibbled."

Dillard continues to think about things being eaten. Parasites are everywhere, she observes, as she recalls a boy carrying a snapping turtle with leeches on it. She wonders how many of the grasshoppers she saw in the meadow were infested with horsehair worms.

She compares a book on insect pests to the "devil's summa theologica," a reference to Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) and his classic book on Catholic theology. Twice she notes parasitic insects form 10 percent of all animal species. This number shows the "manic exuberance" of the creator and is also a sign the world is real, the 10-percent burden of parasites a tithe humans pay to be alive. (A tithe is the payment of one-tenth of one's income to the church.) More than willing to pay "a little blood from the throat and wrists for the taste of the air" (the locust imagery again), Dillard accepts the world as she finds it, imperfect though it is, riddled with disease and death; being alive is a privilege.

She recalls her vision of the cedar tree with the lights in it and suddenly wonders if it was infested with galls. Still she chooses to believe in the vision she had that day when she saw the "cells in the cedar tree pulse charged like wings beating praise." Beauty and corruption exist side by side, neither diminishing the other. "The tree with the lights in it does not go out."


Dillard once again delves into the idea of theodicy, freely acknowledging life is filled with disease, suffering, and death. The concept of things being eaten drives the narrative throughout the chapter. "Chomp or fast," she writes, over and over. Every plant, every creature, every human is subject to this inescapable "nibbling." But although she calls herself a sacrifice to this cycle of life and death, "bound with cords to the horns of the world's rock altar," this knowledge doesn't lead her to despair. Dillard not only accepts the conjoined state of beauty and violence in nature but also believes it liberates her. At the close of the chapter she writes, "A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way."

Dillard also explores the concept of two different kinds of knowledge: intellectual and experiential. When she decides the cedar tree in her backyard is infested with galls—abnormal growths, often brightly colored—she nonetheless rejects the notion that evidence of disease invalidates the truth of the vision the tree inspired, claiming "knowledge does not vanquish mystery." She will still live by what she learned from her mystical vision, the vision being the same whatever the cause.

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