Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Study Guide

Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Summary

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Summary

Overview

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a seamless melding of two genres, nature and religion. Dillard describes plants, animals, and natural events in prose alternately lyrical and clinical. One moment readers are charmed by her description of a clownish muskrat swimming in the creek, and the next they are horrified to learn starving young muskrats sometimes eat their newborn siblings. The contradiction between beauty and violence haunts the book and poses a question about the essence of God that Dillard wrestles to answer on virtually every page.

Dillard uses two intertwined elements to structure the narrative. All the action takes place in the span of 12 months, starting and ending in winter. Within this framework of four seasons, Dillard arranges the chapters into two groups she calls the via positiva (what God is) and the via negativa (what God is not). Chapter 1 is an introduction; Chapters 2–8 form the via positiva section, corresponding to the first six months of the year, from January to June.

Chapter 9, which takes place just after the summer solstice and recounts a major flood, serves as an intermission, or transition. The via negativa begins in July, in Chapter 10, and ends in November in Chapter 14. In the final chapter, which occurs in December, Dillard reviews the most memorable events and images she has witnessed around Tinker Creek during the year and speculates about what they mean for her spiritually.

Dillard explores a wealth of ideas in the book. Some chapters are devoted primarily to a single theme, with explanatory titles that make the focus obvious. But Dillard never confines herself to a single point in any chapter, nor does she develop her ideas in a linear or sequential pattern. She moves freely from one notion to another, circling back often to her favorite themes to reinforce them by adding more examples from nature, more quotations from other authors, or more of her own metaphysical musings.

Winter Chapters

The opening scene of the book is a warning about the carnage to come. Dillard recalls a tomcat who loved to fight. He would often leap on her during the night, leaving bloody paw prints "like roses" all over her body.

Immediately she shifts to a more peaceful image. She lives in the mountains, by a creek, comparing it to the lonely hermitage of a monk. She allows readers to believe she is living in rural seclusion, just as Thoreau let readers think he lived in the wilderness. In fact, Walden Pond was so close to town Thoreau often had dinner with his mother. Tinker Creek is only a few yards from the suburban house where Dillard lives with her husband. What matters is not where she lives but what nature can reveal about the co-existence of beauty and cruelty. Her focus on the natural world of plants and animals, of rocks and stars and rushing water, is so intense that in the end it hardly matters whether Dillard wrote from a creek in the wilderness or a city drainage ditch. It is her complete absorption in the natural rather than the human realm that renders her vision of the wild authentic.

The second and third chapters of the book take place in February. Dillard discusses what people must do to prepare themselves for their encounter with nature. Before anything else, they must learn how to see things as they truly are. This concept of seeing is one of Dillard's fundamental themes, one which she illustrates in Chapter 2 with the story of a blind girl whose vision is restored after surgery. With her new sight, the child struggles to recognize a patchwork of shadow and color as a tree. Whereas sighted people would understand the darkness is the tree and the patches of color are the lighter background behind it, the girl thinks the tree has lights on all its branches.

Later Dillard has a similar vision of a cedar tree, as if she were seeing each individual cell of the tree ablaze with light. These different ways of perceiving natural objects help Dillard realize how essential it is to look at the world with a mind unclouded by preconceptions. "When I see this way, I see truly," she writes.

The mood in these two winter chapters is peaceful, mournful—so it is a shock when after all this preparation, Dillard delivers a fourth chapter packed with startling and grotesque images from the insect world. These include cannibalistic praying mantises and a doomed moth in a Mason jar. These examples may not reflect favorably on nature or its creator, but they fulfill the purpose of the via positiva in that they show Dillard what God is, even if that is not always benevolent.

It is still February in the brief fifth chapter. This is a quiet interlude in which Dillard's discovery of a knotted snakeskin leads to an insight about how time itself is also circular, with no beginning or end.

Spring Chapters

It isn't until Chapter 6 that Dillard moves into March. Here she shares another dream-like experience, one that exalts her and also confirms her belief in the need to pay attention to be fully immersed in the world of nature around her. When she does pay close attention, thus becoming less aware of herself, amazing things happen. On a drive back to Tinker Creek, she watches as a mountain sunset transforms into a pulsating, kaleidoscopic vision of shapes and colors.

In the final two chapters of the via positiva section she demonstrates again that positive doesn't mean "good" or "kind" or "beautiful." The springtime resurgence of life begins to bother her. "The plants are closing in on me," she writes in Chapter 7. There is too much of everything, and even the teeming life she sees under the microscope in a drop of pond water makes her uneasy. In the following chapter, Dillard simultaneously revels in the intricate glories of nature while acknowledging it is riddled with imperfections. Intricacy and imperfection combine to form what she calls the texture of creation. "The wonder is that all forms are not monsters," she says. Despite that, she is still able to proclaim God is the author of both the lovely and the loathsome aspects of nature.

Summer Chapters

The summer solstice in Chapter 9 marks the transition between the two thematic halves of the book. In this second section, Dillard revisits some of the same ideas she has already begun to explore, looking at them from a darker perspective she only hinted at earlier. The vague unease she felt in Chapter 7 at the abundant growth of spring metastasizes in Chapter 10 into outright horror at the unbridled fertility of life. God allows so many to be born only because so few will survive; Dillard questions what to her seems a wasteful and cruel means of creation.

In Chapter 11 she abruptly switches gears. In the heat of July she now expresses the via negativa not in terms of cruelty or the heedless fecundity of nature but rather as an absence of action. She waits patiently not only to view what she wants to see in nature but also to understand its creator. This "stalking" as she calls it is like learning how to spot fish in a creek or animals in the wild. But no matter how patient or attentive she is, the creator may remain hidden, just as in the Old Testament God told Moses, "Thou canst not see my face."

Suddenly it is September, and Dillard writes in Chapter 12 with almost delirious joy at being caught in a barrage of grasshoppers while spending the night outside in a neighboring field. Once again, Dillard reiterates the importance of complete immersion in the present. "Is this where we live," she writes, "in this place at this moment?" She doesn't even mind a few small cuts when the grasshoppers hit her skin; she is willing to lose a little blood for the pleasure of being in nature.

The notion of trading blood for experience leads to Chapter 13 with its theme of sacrifice. "Chomp or fast," Dillard repeats as she writes at length about parasites and predators. The scientific anecdotes about copperhead snakes and parasitic wasps no longer horrify her as they do in Chapters 4 and 10. "The creator is no puritan," she says. "Creatures may simply steal and suck and be blessed." Dillard is coming to terms with the death that lies at the heart of all life. She knows she too is a sacrifice waiting to die, but that knowledge makes her feel more alive.

Autumn Chapters

Dillard races through three months in Chapter 14, her focus not on the glories of an Appalachian autumn but on the advent of winter as the year moves from September through November. This is a time of restless waiting for something she calls "Northings"—her spiritual reactions to the cold, stark winter to come. She yearns to be stripped down, just as the trees are stripped of their leaves, to kill the self whose intrusiveness she lamented earlier. When the self gets out of the way, when the mind stops chattering, it will finally become quiet enough for Dillard to hear the approach of God.

The Year's End

Although the last chapter is set in December at the winter solstice, Dillard spends several pages reviewing the previous months. This is far more than a sentimental scrapbook, however. Her memories are the catalyst for a final hymn of praise to the world of nature, both the beauty and the bloodshed. Dillard considers this chapter a conclusion, not part of either the via positiva or the via negativa, and she feels free to frame her ultimate conclusions about God in both positive and negative ways. Any hesitance she once felt about accepting the duality of creation is gone, and Dillard now sings her wholehearted acceptance of both life and death. "Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air," she claims.

Beyond all else, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a meditation on the existence of suffering and death and what these experiences say about God. Dillard suggests how she believes people should respond to a world that includes these elements of existence.

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