Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Course Hero, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Study Guide," September 26, 2017, accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Pilgrim-at-Tinker-Creek/.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 15 : The Waters of Separation | Summary

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Summary

It is December, the winter solstice, and Dillard can feel something ringing inside her as if an iron bell were hanging from her ribs, but she cannot make out what it is. So she decides to go for a walk. At the quarry she hears the lonely echo of her voice and wonders who is there to hear. On edge, she feels the bell in her ribs again and answers, "I'm coming, when I can."

Returning to Tinker Creek, Dillard remembers the frog killed by the giant water bug early in the book and thinks of the terror in the frog's eyes. The image prompts her to write about Old Testament sacrifices, particularly the purifying "waters of separation." She chastises God for forcing people to kill to get his attention, saying, "look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste." Is the beauty she has found so often in nature only a mask for the horror of creation? If she could pull the mask off God, would it reveal ugliness filled with malicious delight? But she looks again at Tinker Creek and immediately recants her anger. "Beauty is real," she says. "The appalling thing is that I forget it."

She sees the wing-like seed capsule of a maple tree spinning to the ground; it looks like a Martian spaceship. Then the bell under her ribs rings a "true note," and all of a sudden she finds her answer. Although she may be tossed randomly in the wind, she can celebrate the ride. "If I am a maple key falling, at least I can twirl."

The last four pages are a combination of sermon and mystical vision about seeking grace and wildness of spirit in the "gaps" of the world to find God. But she believes and states that people to the end of their lives will not receive what they expect as they leave life. The universe is made as it is, beauty and violence inextricably woven together, and "nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see."

Closing the chapter, Dillard recalls the tomcat that "bloodied and mauled her." She invokes her vision of the tree with the lights in it and quotes Thoreau's philosophical mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), who dreamed an angel offered him the world and said, "This thou must eat." She thinks once more of the giant water bug that ate more than just the poor frog; he ate the world. Paradoxically this thought causes her joy, not despair. She vows to dance up and down the creek, "exultant, in a daze," her left foot saying "Glory" and her right foot saying, "Amen."

Analysis

The almost hallucinatory language Dillard uses in the concluding chapter is much like that found in mystical religious texts, such as the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. It may be helpful to recall what Dillard has written earlier in the book, in less mystical terms, to decode the meaning of this chapter.

The problem Dillard has wrestled with throughout is how to reconcile the beauty she sees at the creek with the violence also present there. In this chapter she substitutes the words "waste and extravagance" for beauty and cruelty, but they mean the same. The answer Dillard gives in response to the troubling duality of the world is one of radical acceptance. She doesn't close her eyes and try to ignore or deny it. Neither does she try to explain it away. Her solution is to explore, accept, and celebrate the world of nature, both when it is wild and cruel and when it is beautiful. This is what she means she talks about "seeking the gaps." In response to a quotation from the American Catholic monk Thomas Merton (1915–68), Dillard says although stepping back from the violence in nature may seem righteous, doing so is nothing more than sulking in anger. "I won't have it," she writes. "We should be making whoopee."

The mystical imagery of the book's final four pages is Dillard "making that whoopee." She summons an Old Testament prophet, Alice in Wonderland, her dead tomcat, and a 19th-century philosopher to join her in an ecstatic dance up and down the waters of the creek. She is seeking out her spirit's true home in nature, in the gaps of the world where reality seeps in.

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