Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 14 : Northing | Summary



Dillard covers two months in the first two paragraphs, telling readers the birds molted in September and then became deeply restless before migration in October. She is restless, too, wishing for colder weather. She sees flocks of migrating goldfinches launch from the willows over the creek. This observation inspires a longing for danger, so she heads into the woods, intending to climb the cliff where she found the young copperhead.

Suddenly she thinks she could walk all the way to Hudson's Bay in Canada. Nature seems to have a magnetic pull on her, calling her northward. These "northings" stir her. After the extravagant growth of the summer, she seeks "a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off." She wants to be honed by northern winds and worn down to a nub like the fragments of shells on a beach.

But instead of migrating, she will wait for the North to come to her over the mountains in what she calls a southing. And the North does come in the form of a five-day invasion of monarch butterflies on their annual migration from Hudson's Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. She coaxes a tired male monarch onto her finger and knows he is tasting her with his feet. From his body she smells honeysuckle, like "a breath of the summer past."

After the monarchs leave, Dillard is still restless, even plagued by nightmares. She dreams of a deadly prayer tunnel in the snow, without light or air, and thinks only an Eskimo could survive there.

When a killing frost comes in November, she welcomes the stark landscape of bare trees, more real to her than the "gilded and pearled" world of summer growth. She longs to pare herself down, too, as the trees have shorn themselves of their leaves, to make a clean sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.


Part of the power of Dillard's prose is the way she deftly mixes short, muscular sentences such as "He smelled like honeysuckle; I couldn't believe it" with long complex sentences that meander on until they finally reach their lyrical end. A striking example of this varied sentence structure is the paragraph about the monarch butterfly that smelled like honeysuckle. After the taut eight-word sentence, Dillard allows each subsequent line to grow a little longer. She spins out her prose to trace her thoughts as they dart from one smell to another. The paragraph ends with a masterful 58-word, eight-clause sentence that never loses its way as it conjures a compelling image of a late summer night at the Lucas place. Many such lyrical passages characterize the book.

In fact, Dillard says this is her favorite chapter, and notes it is the final section of the via negativa. But it is not immediately apparent in what way this chapter is about the negative approach to God. There is no catalogue of natural horrors, except a gruesome anecdote about Eskimo children sledding on the frozen embryos of seals. And the closest she gets to discussing death is the "suicidal" descent of falling tree leaves—reprising the motif of color-patches—and a dog carrying the leg of a dead deer.

Dillard does write at length about restlessness, migration, and Northing, but what do they have to do with the via negativa? The answer lies in her statement that as winter approaches, she seeks "a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off." She wants death to the self: not a bodily death but an end to obsessive self-awareness. This is what "reduction" means to Dillard.

In an earlier chapter she explained how sometimes she is able to stop being aware of her own existence when she looks for muskrats. She believes the coming winter will help her shed her sense of self in the same way, but for more than just a few minutes at a time. This death of the self is not something she can achieve by action, however. It will shy away like a wild animal if she tries. So she has to wait quietly and patiently. This kind of waiting is another aspect of the via negativa.

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