In narrating Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard often adopts a poetic, almost biblical tone to describe her surroundings and her experiences in the natural world of Tinker Creek. Throughout much of the book, Dillard's prose suggests that she is the lone human observer of myriad natural phenomena, a true pilgrim in an unexplored and untamed wilderness. However, certain jarring passages make it clear that Dillard is not alone in the world of which she writes, and that her surroundings and company are not unlike those with which many of her readers are likely to be familiar. In the passage below, Dillard discovers that neighborhood children have been using her "woods by the creek" as a motorbike trail, and her unexpected discussion of other people and their commonplace influence on nature feels just as sudden and strange to the reader as the man-made signs in the woods appear to the author:

There was something new in the woods today — a bunch of sodden, hand-lettered signs tied to trees all along the winding path. They said "SLOW," "SLIPPERY WHEN WET," "Stop," "PIT ROW," "ESSO," and "BUMP!!" These signs indicated an awful lot of excitement over a little snow. When I saw the first one, "SLOW," I thought, sure, I'll go slow; I won't screech around on the unbroken path in the woods by the creek under snow. What was going on here? The other signs made it clear. Under "BUMP!!" lay, sure enough, a bump. I scraped away the smooth snow. Hand fashioned of red clay, and now frozen, the bump was about six inches high and eighteen inches across. The slope, such as it was, was gentle; tread marks stitched the clay. On the way out I saw that I'd missed the key sign, which had fallen: "Welcome to the Martinsville Speedway." So my "woods by the creek" was a motorbike trail to the local boys, their "Martinsville Speedway." I had always wondered why they bothered to take a tractor-mower to these woods all summer long, keeping the many paths open; it was a great convenience to me. [50]

The above description of human imposition on the woods provides a sharp contrast to the detailed observations of plant and animal life that Dillard sets forth in the surrounding text. However, although the content of this passage differs from that of other passages in the same section of the book, the author's manner of looking at the motorbike trail ultimately brings it and the boys who made it into the scope of the Tinker Creek environment. Beginning with roughly the same words she uses to relate the appearance of an unprecedented natural occurrence — "there was something new in the woods today" — Dillard proceeds to examine the trail as though it were an especially interesting section of the creek or a bird on a branch, and she describes the signs and the handmade "bump" in as much detail as she does any other component of the landscape. Seen through Dillard's prose, even something as simple as evidence of children's pastimes becomes a mystical part of the enthralling world the author explores.

Questions

1. Dillard uses colons and semicolons frequently throughout this passage. How does this technique alter the tone and pacing of the passage?

2. How does Dillard's inclusion of meandering, stream-of-consciousness thoughts (e.g. "What was going on here?" and "Sure, I'll go slow") draw readers into the narrative and help them gain a better sense of what the environment around Tinker Creek is like?

3. Why does Dillard refer to her "woods by the creek" in quotation marks? How does this reference shed light on the unique awareness of her environment that she develops throughout the book?

4. The calm, somewhat detached curiosity with which Dillard examines her surroundings is sometimes reminiscent of John McPhee's prose in Coming Into The Country. Consider the passage below:

A grizzly, no slower than a racing horse, is about half again as fast as the fastest human being. Watching the great mound of weight in the blueberries, with a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around, I had difficulty imagining that he could move with such speed, but I believed it, and was without the impulse to test the proposition. Fortunately, a light breeze was coming up the Salmon valley. [McPhee 59]

How do the similar narrative tactics that Dillard and McPhee use in these two passages function differently within the contexts of the works as wholes? Do they affect the overall persona of the narrator the same way in both passages?

References

Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.


Victorian Web Overview Annie Dillard

Last modified 27 November 2007