Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Chapter 8 : Intricacy | Summary



It is June, and summer is now in the Virginia mountains. As Dillard feeds her goldfish, Ellery, she describes complex details of its anatomical structure. Recalling the image she saw years ago under a microscope of red blood cells rushing through the tail of an anaesthetized fish, she compares the flow of red blood cells to the flow of water in Tinker Creek and to a stream of oxygen-creating chloroplasts in a plant. She is interested in the plant—elodea—in the goldfish bowl because having seen a leaf under a microscope, she saw "that color-charged, glistening world" as she observed the "streaming of chloroplasts," the chlorophyll-bearing cells of plants. Referring to Thoreau who wrote nature "spends her whole genius on the least work," Dillard notes the creator "churns out the intricate texture of least ... with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care."

As she ponders the unity and intricacy of the universe present in the fishbowl, Dillard returns to the central idea of the book: seeing. She refers again to the color-patches in her vision of the lights in the cedar tree, linking them to physics and invisible subatomic particles. Then she goes down to Tinker Creek and observes what is visible, thus helping her make more sense of the whole of creation and thus the creator.

To make anything, Dillard says, a creator must work with a multitude of tiny details or "intricacies." Nature is replete with an "extravagance" of intricacies, such as the 228 separate muscles in the head of a caterpillar, the six million leaves on an elm tree, and the 15 yards of tubules in the nephron of a human kidney. To Dillard such intricacies imply the existence of a creator who, for no apparent reasons, superimposed complex mechanisms or designs on something basically simpler.

In Part II of the chapter she wants to remain open to the reality of all the "shreds of creation" in her valley. In the texture and irregularity of items like a bird's feather, she sees further evidence of the intricacy so important to her. Dillard expects to find imprints of God in nature and even dreams about the subject.

She acknowledges God isn't always obvious, but given limited human understanding of the world, this notion does not surprise her. Maybe humans do not have enough imagination to understand all the intricate marvels a creator has devised. Perhaps it is wrong to expect nature to make sense. "The whole creation is one lunatic fringe," Dillard asserts. She then introduces the question with which she will wrestle throughout the second half of the book: how can both beauty and monstrosity erupt from the same root?


In part of this chapter Dillard reflects the influence of Thoreau. (In fact her goldfish—Ellery Channing—is named after Thoreau's close friend.) Dillard quotes Thoreau as saying, "Nature is mythical and mystical always." The word mythical may throw readers off. To scholars myth does not refer to a false or untrue statement. Rather myth is religious language used to express a deeper truth about life. This is the sense in which both Thoreau and Dillard use the word mythical. To Dillard nature itself is the language of creation, expressing deeper truths that in turn can help her understand God. What she understands here is this: "intricacy" is the elaborate, decorative overlay on something basically simple and functional.

She is using mythical language like this when she personifies the universe as a clay man filled with holes. Each hole in his body "completely surrounds" cosmic objects such as galaxies, solar systems, and planets like our own earth. She starts with the largest item, galaxies, and then moves in decreasing order from the vastness of space down to a single feather on a single wing of a single goose. She zooms in still closer until the view is completely filled with millions of tiny barbules on each of a thousand barbs on that wing.

Dillard is here doing two things at once in her prose. She is never trying simply to make a thematic point, although that remains a primary goal. As a writer, she is also deeply interested in language itself and how to evoke images so vivid that readers not only understand on an intellectual level what she is trying to say but also feel it viscerally on a level beyond reason or logic. The clay man containing within his body the entire universe, from gigantic galaxies to minuscule barbules on the wing of a goose, is such an image.

Dillard employs another kind of religious language to structure the book as well. In the afterword to the 25th anniversary of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she explains this chapter as the final statement of the via positive, one of a contrasting pair of approaches theologians follow in trying to understand the nature of God. The via positiva, or positive way, tries to "get at" God by describing all he does or all the qualities he has. The via negativa, or negative way, tries to accomplish the same task by describing what God is not and what he does not do.

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