Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 6 : The Present | Summary



Miles away from Tinker Creek on an interstate in early March, Dillard stops for gas; the boy who runs the station offers her coffee. While there she has a mystical experience similar to her vision of lights in the cedar tree. This time it happens when she pets a beagle puppy while the sun is setting behind the mountains. She feels as if she has left this world and entered another as she watches a play of shadow and light that makes the mountain seem to pulsate like "living protoplasm." But the moment at which she thinks "this is it, right now, the present," the vision collapses.

Dillard notes a crucial difference between experiencing a moment and thinking, "Oh, I am experiencing this moment." The former opens the person to eternity, to God, whereas the latter dulls them to it. She identifies this kind of self-consciousness with city living, clearly preferring the "innocence" of the spirit's "unself-conscious" state found in the wild.

She compares being fully awake in the present moment to coming into the daylight after sitting in a darkened movie theater. She segues to a meditation about her belief people hide from the present to hide from God, who can either illuminate or incinerate them. This fear grows as people get older; therefore, only children can truly see because they do not yet fear death.

Sharing her random, ever-changing thoughts, she tries to marshal them, to anchor herself on the bank of Tinker Creek. But her thoughts keep wandering, and she realizes she is still not "here," still not in the present. She keeps trying to get there and keeps failing as she continues to be distracted by things that fascinate her. Finally she scolds, "Pull yourself together," and by the end of the chapter her thoughts are fully back at the creek where she is sitting. This is why Tinker Creek is such a meaningful place for her. It helps anchor her to the present—and for her this place in the present is the true incarnation of the divine spirit.


The first line repeats the closing line of Chapter 5, "Catch it if you can." This line reinforces the theme of living in the present moment, which is difficult to do because of human self-consciousness and the mind's wandering elsewhere. The present moment is fleeting, as Dillard continues to emphasize. Using the powerful metaphor of re-entering daylight after leaving a darkened theater, she explains the momentary sensation of unself-consciousness, during which the mind and senses realize what is around them as opposed to the experience in the darkened theater.

Dillard may seem to contradict herself in this chapter. In a lament about how analytical self-consciousness separates her from both nature and its creator, she seems to indulge in the very action she wishes to avoid. As she sits by Tinker Creek trying to corral her thoughts, they nonetheless spiral outward uncontrollably, and she does not shrink from sharing with readers a stream of memories, experiences, and gleanings from history, science, religion, and myth. This excursion into the past is the precise opposite of remaining fully attuned to the present.

On second reading, however, readers may get suspicious. Perhaps Dillard does this on purpose in a clever way to prove her point. Rather than simply lecture about the danger of getting lost in abstraction, she vividly demonstrates the risk by doing the very thing she warns against. That is one way to understand her purpose in this chapter.

Dillard's language is particularly striking as she shares her reveries. As her kaleidoscopic vision of the mountain fades, she compares it to the face of a former lover, still beautiful but now a stranger. Also she makes a point about how the present is always in flux by comparing the flow of time to a "live creek bearing changing lights." Her use of personification, too, compels readers to see in new ways as she describes trees having "their sturdy bodies and special skills." Focusing on sycamores, she notes they "go wild and wave their long white arms."

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