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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Symbols


Tinker Creek

Tinker Creek has more than one symbolic meaning. First and foremost Tinker Creek is her physical and spiritual anchor. It serves simultaneously as both an avenue toward something good and an escape from something bad: a path leading her into the authentic world of nature and a haven from the often artificial world of people. Tinker Creek is a sanctuary, a sacred space in the same way the solitary huts of monks were places to which they could retreat to contemplate the divine.

Dillard distinguishes between Tinker Creek and Tinker Mountain, noting she doesn't feel the same connection to mountains because of their sense of permanence. Oddly this sense seems to disturb her, perhaps because it reminds her of the horror she feels at anything "fixed" that doesn't allow for change. She prefers the creek precisely because it is always in flux, always moving and flowing. In its nonstop motion, the creek is, in a sense, constantly being born anew, and it thus symbolizes the future for Dillard.

Moreover, she sees the creek as a bearer of light, by which she means knowledge. This knowledge is not scientific fact or the product of analytic thought. Rather it represents the kind of mystical, experiential knowledge, impossible to express with words and thus a symbol for the mystery of God.

Tree with Lights in It

There are actually two trees with lights: the blind girl's tree and the cedar tree in Dillard's backyard. The girl whose sight was restored by surgery saw a tree in her garden and did not recognize it at first with her new vision. All she could discern was a shadowy shape ablaze with light. After reading that story, Dillard searched everywhere for a similar experience, only to find it where she least expected it—in a cedar tree in her own backyard. She sees the cedar "charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame." Even though she later believes galls, or abnormal growths, might have caused the golden color, the vision remains the same, its cause insignificant.

This experience echoes the New Testament story, with which Dillard was undoubtedly familiar, of the transfiguration of Jesus. Christian teaching understands the transfiguration as the moment at which Jesus revealed his true divine nature to his disciples. Seeing the nature of the cedar tree has a transformative effect on Dillard as well. "It was less like seeing than being ... seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance," she writes in Chapter 2.

Dillard believes if people can temporarily let go of the analytical knowledge they have about a natural object such as a tree, they can see past their assumptions and preconceptions to gain a glimpse of its true nature. That is why she cherishes the reactions of those who have recently gained their sight, whose "vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning." The tree with the lights in it thus symbolizes Dillard's goal of seeing through nature to the eternal reality she believes lies beyond it.

Bloody Tomcat

The fighting tomcat "stinking of blood and urine" opens the book in Chapter 1 and ushers it to a close in Chapter 15. In her notes, archived at Yale University, Dillard says she wanted to begin with a visceral image of blood as a symbol of death and sacrifice—but also of spiritual rebirth. Dillard makes this meaning clear when she wonders on the first page of the book whether she has ruined her own Passover by washing off the blood. Or has she purified herself, she asks, which is a reference to the religious rite of baptism?

The bloody tomcat also foreshadows the central theme of the book. Dillard sends a clear signal the book will overturn readers' expectations about the nature genre. They are not going to experience a whitewashed portrait of the glory and majesty of woods and mountains and streams. The beauty of nature is inextricable from its violence, bloodiness, and cruelty. Dillard thus forewarns readers by starting the book with the unsettling image of a gore-stained cat breaching the boundary between civilization and nature—between the supposed safety of her bedroom and the wilder world of Tinker Creek. "We wake if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence," Dillard writes. She intends to awaken readers to these in the pages to follow.

Dying Frog

The horrific death of the frog is another vivid symbol Dillard introduces in Chapter 1 and refers to repeatedly. She encounters the frog at Tinker Creek and wonders why it doesn't leap away as she approaches. While she watches, the frog crumples to death in a matter of minutes, its skull and skin collapsing as a giant water bug literally sucks its insides out after first dissolving them with poison. All that remains of the frog is a bit of skin floating, like a deflated balloon, on the surface of the creek. Dillard is shocked and breathless. She quickly realizes nothing at all unusual has happened in what she witnessed. Such carnage is the norm, not the exception. No more genteel than the water bugs, however, frogs "eat everything whole, stuffing prey into their mouths with their thumbs."

Does it have to be this way, she wonders? Couldn't the creator have designed the world differently to avoid such suffering? "Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain," Dillard writes. Although she always counters such gloomy reflections with others that affirm the beauty in nature, the gruesome fate of the dying frog is a symbol Dillard uses whenever she wants to remind readers of the violence lying at the core of the natural world.

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