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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Motifs



Dillard sees color-patches for weeks after reading a book about the experiences of blind people when their sight is surgically restored. At first their newfound vision confuses them. Their brains have not been taught to interpret the play of light, shadow, shape, and depth they are seeing for the first time. So they cannot recognize even familiar things such as trees and houses—not even their own mothers. Objects are seen solely as blobs of darkness and color, "a dazzle of color-patches," as Dillard calls them. This foreign new world deeply disturbs people who were blind, and many yearn for the familiarity and security of their former blindness, even closing their eyes to avoid seeing.

But some find beauty in the "world's brightness." It is their unmediated experience of the world Dillard envies. Color-patches represent for her an ideal state of viewing things as they are, without being diluted or warped by excessive analysis. Each time she sees color-patches, it is a wondrous experience for her. She walks around an orchard and doesn't see peaches but rather "shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea." Sadly she cannot sustain this vision; she cannot "unpeach the peaches." She continues to seek out color-patches as the book unfolds, delighted whenever she manages to regain this primal, innocent way of perceiving the world, stripped of layers of interpretation and distortion. Although she admits words and analysis are necessary, something is inevitably lost when people rely on them too much. "Maybe we could all see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason," she writes, adding later, "When I see this way, I see truly."


Dillard uses insects as a motif to develop her idea of cruelty as an inescapable and indeed a fundamental aspect of nature. She returns to them again and again in horrified fascination. From the giant water bug that impales, dissolves, deflates, and then consumes the frog to the ichneumon flies whose eggs hatch inside the bodies of their hosts and devour them alive, insects serve as Dillard's primary example of the suffering and violence hidden inside the beauty of nature. Even the grasshoppers that enthrall her can turn in an instant into a swarm of destructive monsters. Praying mantises eat everything from hummingbirds to their own mates, laying their eggs in a viscous mass that disgusts her.

Yet as repelled as she is by the insect world, Dillard insists it is the key that can unlock the mystery of creation. She even suggests people should "display praying mantises in our churches. Why do we turn from the insects in loathing?" The world is no place for the squeamish. Dillard believes it is essential to keep a clear-eyed gaze on both the ugliness and the beauty in nature. "Teddy bears should come with tiny stuffed bear-lice," she states, stressing the point all life comes at the cost of some other creature's death.

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