Pilgrim at Tinker Creek infuses the romance of Dillard's solitary wanderings with themes of death and impermanence and a dose of frank humor. Shunning dialogue in favor of description, the animals and insects in Dillard's narrative are elevated almost to character status. Subtly, tension builds between the wild and the cultivated as Dillard describes the preying mantis in terms of insects, animals, and humans.
Within the week, I've seen thirty or so of these [mantis] egg cases in a rose-grown field on Tinker Mountain, and another thirty in the weeds along Carvin's Creek. One was on a twig of tiny dogwood on the mud lawn of a newly built house. I think the mail-order houses sell them to gardeners at a dollar apiece. It beats spraying, because each case contains between one hundred twenty-five to three hundred fifty eggs. If the eggs survive ants, woodpeckers, and mice — and most do — then you get the fun of seeing the new mantises hatch, and the smug feeling of knowing, all summer long, that they're out there in your garden devouring gruesome numbers of fellow insects all nice and organically. When a mantis has crunched up the last shred of its victim, it cleans its smooth green face like a cat.
In late summer I often see a winged adult stalking the insects that swarm about my porch light. Its body is a clear, warm green; its naked, triangular head can revolve uncannily, so that I often see one twist its head to gaze at me as it were over its shoulder. When it strikes, it jerks so suddenly and with such a fearful clatter of raised wings, that even a hardened entomologist like J. Henri Fabre confessed to being startled witless every time. [54-55]
Dillard's humor often hinges on the macabre attitudes and actions of her subjects. She playfully exposes the gardener's shameful delight in the mantis's ravenous appetite and evokes chillingly realistic images complete with acoustic effects, of the mantis "crunching up" its prey. The first paragraph sets up a cheerful bait-and-switch, in which Dillard reverses the order of the primary function of garden mantises (as pest controllers), with what she finds most fascinating about them (watching them hatch). Not all of Dillard's prose is so lighthearted, though. In the following paragraphs, she expresses the painful sight of watching dozens of baby mantises hatch from an egg case only to kill and eat one another until none of them survive.
1. J. Henri Fabre appears in the book several times, what is his function? Does the fact that relatively few human characters appear in the beginning of the book change his role at all?
2. How does comparing a mantis to a cat characterize the insect?
3. Dillard uses many hyphenated noun and adjective phrases like "rose-grown," "mail-order," "root-flame," etcÉ What kind of tone does this create? How would the rhythm and sonority change if she used "overgrown with roses," or another phrase?
4. Throughout the book, Dillard anthropomorphizes insects and animals, especially when describing predator-prey relationships using phrases like "victim," and "devouring gruesome numbers of their fellow insects." Does she really believe that the animal kingdom is capable of cruelty, or do these phrases have another effect?
5. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek blends together the narrative styles of several authors we have encountered. Whose descriptive style does Dillard's most closely match? Whose sense of humor?
Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Last modified 29 November 2007