Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 7 : Spring | Summary



It is April, and spring has arrived. Dillard recalls how as a child she used to think only English words were real and other languages just codes. Then she skips to a scene of birds singing, including a mockingbird in her chimney, and says scientists still don't know why birds sing. She longs for a code that would unlock the meaning of their songs. She realizes birds themselves probably do not know, but it doesn't matter, she writes. "The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?" Beauty is a language of its own, and finding the code to unlock its meaning is perhaps the most important quest of all.

In spring she is prone to excess. Wandering through the woods, Dillard describes newts nibbling at her finger in the creek and ants chewing the praying mantis egg cases she planted earlier. She lists all the blooming trees and flowers and focuses on a single leaf on a tulip tree sapling.

Suddenly it is May, and in the valley where she lives the plants are so lush she is beginning to feel claustrophobic. The duck pond is choked with life, including "a million" bullfrogs and an algae mat so extensive she has seen a frog get stuck in it.

She takes home a cup of pond water and lets it settle in a bowl. As she focuses the lens of her microscope, she jokes about how she is almost knocked off her chair when an enormous red roundworm whips into view. She doesn't enjoy these moments but feels she needs to remind herself that even worms are as much a part of creation as she is.


The abundance of spring, with its extravagant excess, is on display. The resurgence of life Dillard longed for in winter seems almost pathological to her now in its springtime bloom. The plants are "closing in" on her, and the bowl of pond water she brings back to her home to study under the microscope is a "seething broth." Readers get the sense this might even be the start of a science-fiction story in which microbes run amok and destroy humankind. In fact, a reviewer in a 1999 Salon article called Dillard "one of the most cold-blooded horror writers of the 20th century."

Dillard does not look forward to her kitchen laboratory sessions with the microscope. But she also sees them as her duty, the microscope pressed against her face like the phylacteries, or small prayer boxes observant Jews wrap around their left arms and press to their foreheads to remind them constantly of God. She also quotes the motto of the Jesuits, an order of Roman Catholic priests: Ad majorem Dei gloriam, meaning "to the greater glory of God." Being awake to the realities of nature is clearly part of that spiritual duty for Dillard. It hearkens back to the discussion of language codes with which she begins the chapter. Walking through the woods, sitting at Tinker Creek, and peering through the microscope at a drop of pond water are the ways Dillard hopes to decipher the code of nature's beauty.

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