Annie Dillard`s "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

An American’s mystical journey
Dr. Elizabeth Giddens
Professor of English
Kennesaw State University
5 September 2014
(“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by Eric Burdon &
the Animals”)
Dillard’s Pilgrim first published in 1974
• Age 29 in 1974, now 69
• 2014 is 40th anniversary of
Pilgrim’s publication
• 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner
• Poetry (2 books, 1974 & 1995)
• Harper’s contributor (1974-85)
• 6 nonfiction narratives &
collected essays (1977-1999)
• 1 memoir, An American
Childhood (1987)
• 2 Novels, The Living (1992) &
The Maytrees (2007)
Remarkable talent as prose stylist
• Casts herself as a pilgrim, a seeker of truth and enlightenment
• Rhapsodic engagement in nature
• Attentive to inner life, weather, critters of all kinds
• First person narrative (Pilgrim called “nonfiction narrative”);
no other “characters”
• Prose shifts from narrative to natural history to literary
allusions to interpretations to vernacular exclamations and
back to humble observation
• Serious, yet captivating tone: intense focus, detail, emotion
• Includes self-deprecating asides (to display modesty?)
• Uses recurring symbols as touchstones of revelation and
“Ch. 1: Heaven & Earth in Jest”: A Guide
• Opening image: Bloody paw prints left on narrator’s body by her tomcat
“The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the
kingdom or the mark of Cain. . . . We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery,
rumors of death, beauty, violence.”
• House by Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge of VA: an anchorite’s hermitage
• “It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about the creeks—Tinker
and Carvin’s—are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the
mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the
uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the
present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness
of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection. The mountains—Tinker
and Brushy, McAfee’s Knob and Dead Man—are a passive mystery, the
oldest of all. Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of
matter itself, anything at all, the given. Mountains are giant, restful,
absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain
will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks
are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the
mountains are home.” (2-3)
Tinker Creek, northwest of Roanoke, VA
Creek as oracle: Place of revelations
Anecdote of frog sucked empty by giant water bug
“He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at
him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from
his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull
seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. . . . The frog was
being sucked by a giant water bug. I had been kneeling on the island
grass; when the unrecognizable flap of frog skin settled on the creek
bottom, swaying. I stood up and brushed the knees of my pants. I
couldn’t catch my breath.” (5-6)
“In the Koran, Allah asks, ‘The heaven and the earth and all in
between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?’ . . . If the giant water
bug was not made in jest, was it made in earnest?” (7)
“I propose to keep here what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological
journal of the mind,” telling some tales and describing some of the
sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and
trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses
to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.” (11)
Giant water bug attacking a fish
Many literary influences & references, but Dillard
has a distinctive voice
Nineteenth century
• Ralph Waldo Emerson
• Henry David Thoreau (144)
• John Muir
Earlier times
• Pliny (91 138, historian, AD 2979)
• Blaise Pascal (mathematician,
• The Bible
• The Koran
(Some page numbers noted for
references in Pilgrim)
Twentieth century
• Edwin Way Teale (35, 38, 47,135, 167, 168, 170,
219, 231, 252)
• Joseph Wood Krutch (162, 228)
• Stewart Edward White (17, novelist, 18731946)
• Marius von Senden (25, author, 1932)
• Jean Henri Fabre (57,63, 65, entomologist,
• Stephen Graham (80, writer, 1884-1975)
• Howard Ensign Evans (65, 136, 236
entomologist, 1919-2002)
• Rutherford Platt (164, geographer, living)
• Werner Heisenberg (127, physicist, 1901-76)
• Thomas Merton (268, writer, mystic, poet,
social activist, 1915-68)
Ralph Waldo Emerson
• Published “Nature”
anonymously in 1836 at 33
• Direct relationship between
the self, God & nature
• “Transparent eyeball”:
experiencing the wonder of
nature and joining with it
• Words as conduit to nature,
which is an avenue to God
• Member of the Transcendental Club & editor of The
Dial for 2 years
• Break with the culture of the
past and of Europe
• Endorses an American
literature and culture
Henry David Thoreau
• Published Walden; Or, Life in the
Woods in 1854
• Year-long escape; builds a small
cabin on Emerson’s land
• First-person narrative
• Focus on living life at the core,
getting free of society, & not
spending time on trivial concerns
• Individualist, anti-social, acetic,
perhaps escapist
• “I went to the woods because I
wished to live deliberately, to
front only the essential facts of
life, and see if I could not learn
what it had to teach, and not,
when I came to die, discover that I
had not lived. . . I wanted to live
deep and suck the marrow out of
John Muir
• Founded the Sierra Club in 1992
• Writer, activist, naturalist, mountain
climber, geologist, inventor
• Believed in the healing powers of nature
• Raised as Presbyterian; memorized Bible
• Becomes pantheistic—a critic of
• Saw nature as God’s cathedral; saw the
interconnectedness of all life (ecology)
• Engaged in campaigns to preserve
wilderness areas & prevent logging &
reservoirs (e.g. Hetch Hetchy Valley)
• “We all travel the milky way together,
trees and men; but it never occurred to
me that trees are travelers, in the
ordinary sense. They make journeys, not
extensive ones, it is true; but our own
little journeys, away and back again, are
only little more than tree-wavings—
many of them not so much.” (“WindStorm in the Forests”)
Joseph Wood Krutch
• Theatre critic, professor of
literature, naturalist, nature writer,
• Wrote a biography of Thoreau &
books about Arizona’s desert
• Became known as a naturalist by
hosting NBC TV documentaries
• 1967 received the Am. Academy of
Arts & Sciences’ Emerson-Thoreau
Medal for “distinguished
achievement in the broad field of
• Prose has droll humor & light touch
• Ibervillea sonorae: “For seven years,
without soil or water, simply lying in
the case, it put forth a few
anticipatory shoots and then, when
no rainy season arrive, dried up
again, hoping for better luck next
year.” (162-63)
Edwin Way Teale
• Science writer, TV writer
• Entomologist, photographer,
• 4-volume work: The American
Seasons, road trips across America
• Lush, lyrical prose style; precise
• “Like a sound, spring spreads and
spreads until it is swallowed up in
space. Like the wind, it moves
across the map invisible; we see it
only in its effects. It appears like
the tracks of the breeze on a field
of wheat, like shadows of windblown clouds, like tossing
branches that reveal the presence
of the invisible, the passing of the
unseen.” (North with the Spring)
How to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
• Read each chapter as a meditation on one idea
• Look for the idea
• Notice the seasonal progression from winter to fall
• Identify important and/or recurring moments and images
• Consider the meaning of moments and images (in terms of the
chapter’s concept)
• Consider the emotional dynamics of the chapter; how does the
mood change from beginning to end?
• Enjoy the vivid prose
• String chapter ideas, images & moments together, if possible, into a
loose narrative of Dillard’s year-long mystical journey
Contemporary events 1970-74:
Vietnam, Environmental Movement & Watergate
• 1970: 448 universities & colleges closed or on strike in protest against war
(“Ohio” by Neil Young, written in protest of the Kent State shootings)
• April 22, 1970: First Earth Day celebrated
• December 1970: Environmental Protection Agency established
• January 1971: 800,000 gallons of oil spilled in San Francisco Harbor
• June 1972: DDT (a toxic pesticide) is banned in US
• November 1973: Trans-Alaska oil pipeline authorized for construction
• December 1973: Endangered Species Act becomes law (“Big Yellow Taxi”
by Joni Mitchell captures environmental movement)
• 1972-74: Watergate scandal, resulting in televised Congressional hearings
during the summer of 1973 and in President Nixon’s resignation August 9,
• March 30, 1972: North Vietnamese troops cross the demilitarized zone
into South Vietnam
• March 29, 1973: US troops leave Vietnam
Watergate Congressional hearings, 1973
August 9, 1974
Images become symbols as they recur
(a partial list with a few instances noted)
The tomcat (1, 98, 270)
The water bug (6, 98, 138, 263, 271)
Hidden pennies (14, 262)
The cedar tree with the lights in it
(33, 80, 129, 205, 242, 271)
The muskrat (46, 95, 153, 186, 190201, 204, 265)
Esquimos (182, 206, 236, 248, 268)
Praying mantis cases & female
laying eggs (54, 99, 108, 211)
Malformed polyphemus moth (59,
• Snakeskin tied in a knot (73, 99,
• Beagle puppy (78, 102)
• Caddisfly larva case (91)
• Tinker Creek (100, 244, 266)
• Duck pond (117, 258)
• Horsehair worms (119, 134, 172)
• Goldfish “Ellery” (124, 167)
• A goldfinch picking seeds from
a thistle head, releasing its
down into the breeze (215)
• Young copperhead (222-27, 262)
• Monarch butterflies (252-56)
Existential questions entertained throughout
• What is time?
• What is the present? Can we live in the present?
• What is it to live?
• Is human life different from other life (plant, insect, animal)?
• What is consciousness? What is self-consciousness?
• How do we cope with the knowledge of pain? Death? Predation?
Cruelty? Waste?
• What is beauty? Why is it important?
• What is God?
• Why is the natural world so intricate? Why is there so much
• How can individuals be important when so much life in nature is
• What should we do given what we know about life?
Sample passage of Goldfinch spreading
thistledown (215-17)
“All at once something wonderful happened, although at first it seemed
perfectly ordinary. A female goldfinch suddenly hove into view. She lighted
weightlessly on the head of a bankside purple thistle and began emptying
the seedcase, sowing the air with down.
“The lighted frame of my window filled. The down rose and spread in all
directions, wafting over the dam’s waterfall and wavering between the
tulip trunks and into the meadow. It vaulted towards the orchard in a puff;
it hovered over the ripening pawpaw fruit and staggered up the steepfaced terrace. It jerked, floated, rolled, veered, swayed. The thistledown
faltered toward the cottage and gusted clear to the motorbike woods; it
rose and entered the shaggy arms of pecans. At last it strayed like snow,
blind and sweet, into the pool of the creek upstream, and into the race of
the creek over rocks down. It shuttered onto the tips of growing grasses,
where it poised, light, still wracked by errant quivers. I was holding my
breath. Is this were we live, I thought, in this place at this moment, with the
air so light and wild? . . .
Dillard ends Pilgrim with mystic vision & Emerson
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who sprang through the
open window by my bed and pummeled my chest, barely sheathing his
claws. I’ve been bloodied and mauled, wrung, dazzled, drawn. I taste
salt on my lips in the early morning; I surprise my eyes in the mirror and
they are ashes, or firey sprouts, and I gape appalled, or full of breath.
The planet whirls alone and dreaming. Power broods, spins, and lurches
down. The planet and the power meet with a shock. They fuse and
tumble, lightning, ground fire; they part, mute, submitting, and touch
again with hiss and cry. The tree with the lights in it buzzes into flame
and the cast-rock mountains ring.
“Emerson saw it. ‘I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether,
and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size
of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and
said, “This must thou eat.” And I ate the world.’*. . . The giant water bug
ate the world. And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says
‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek,
upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver
trumpets of praise.” (270-71)
*Journals and Misc Notes of RWE, ed. William H. Gillman et al, Cambridge: Harvard UP (1960-82) v 7 (1838-42): p.
Take aways . . .
Annie Dillard today
• The effect of details
collected at the moment of
• A continuation of the
transcendental, American
Romantic tradition of nature
• The power of vivid verbs,
large vocabulary, broad
• How memories and
references to literary works
spur original thought
• “Rocky Mountain High” by
John Denver, released in

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