Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 3 : Winter | Summary



It is February, and cold weather has forced Dillard indoors. Starlings now are the local topic of conversation. Non-native birds, they "roost in vast hordes ... and residents can't go outside" for long "because of the stink ... the droppings, and the lice." The birds have survived several attempts—some rather nasty—to get rid of them. Dillard, however, has no objections to the birds.

She values the time indoors to read and write and thus gain deeper understanding of all she has observed: "I reap the harvest of the rest of the year's planting," she speaks metaphorically. Regarding the seasons, she says the luxuriant growth of summer conceals things whereas the bareness of winter reveals them. When she does head outside at dusk, she is transfixed by the daily flock of starlings flying overhead. The sound of their wings beating the air is like a "million shook rugs," and she feels as if the birds were passing through the cells of her body.

The next day it snows, and after Dillard observes the play of light and dark during the nighttime snowfall, she ventures out to watch a coot on the creek. She stands so still she starts to feel like a tree and even wonders if the coot will think that's what she is. She cites other animals that are immobile in winter: frogs frozen in the mud beneath the creek, turtles beneath the ice. She notes some strategies animals employ to survive the winter: hibernation or migration.

All the while Tinker Creek runs beneath its coating of ice, making a sound like "foil on foil." That night the wind is strong, and even her goldfish seems restless. So is she. She reveals her house is open to spiders, who eat flies and other insects, and describes the orb-weaving spider's web-spinning technique. Dillard hints at her yearning for the arrival of spring when she says something new is coming and fears she might miss the exact moment winter turns to spring.


This chapter is less metaphysical than the first two. Dillard moves quickly from one observation to another, packing the chapter densely with information about nature. She also uses more humor, such as making fun of herself playing hide and seek with the coot and wondering which of them is an idiot. She often exaggerates the humor, sometimes to the point of the grotesque, for dramatic effect. After stating that "things out of place are ill," Dillard first tells the story of finding a snake coiled up inside a birdhouse. Then she imagines an even more bizarre example—going to her kitchen for milk and finding a pot of stew on her stove that she didn't cook, with a deer leg sticking out of it.

One of the unifying themes of this chapter is surviving the winter. Dillard describes in great detail the various strategies different animals use to do this. These descriptions parallel her own winter survival tactic: obsessively reading books about Eskimos and arctic explorers. There is dry humor in Dillard's reading about survival in extreme conditions when winter in Virginia is relatively short and mild.

Dillard's poetic language is on display in this chapter, especially in her observations of the flock of starlings flying to roost, "transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein ... I didn't move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. The flight extended like a fluttering banner." During this time Dillard once again is experiencing a natural phenomenon on a cellular level.

She further describes the feel of winter by blending the senses in describing the onset of snow: "Some weather's coming; you can taste on the sides of your tongue a quince tang in the air."

Even with the more observational focus of this chapter, readers can still find references to one of the central metaphysical themes of the book: theodicy. In recounting the cruel things humans do, Dillard echoes the observations she has already made and will continue to make about how beauty and violence are inextricably linked in nature.

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