Annie Dillard starkly depicts the violence of nature early in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Between a bloody tomcat and a life-sucking water bug, Dillard shows her fascination for the beauty of a world she slowly learns to understand. In this world, Dillard must teach herself to see praying mantis egg cases; retraining her eyes to see new parts of the world around her is akin to learning French for the first time.

While Dillard continues to approach nature innocently and wholeheartedly throughout the book, she also demonstrates her understanding of the world she is studying by mimicking the behavior of the most vicious acts of nature. In the following passage, Dillard, like the water bug she describes in such great detail early in the book, sucks the life out of her own writing, only to create something new and more beautiful:

The tomcat that used to wake me is dead; he was long since grist for an earthworm's casting, and is now the clear sap of a Pittsburgh sycamore, or the honeydew of aphids sucked from that sycamore's high twigs and sprayed in sticky drops on a stranger's car. A steer across the road stumbles into the creek to drink; he blinks; he laps; a floating leaf in the current catches against his hock and wrenches away. The giant water bug I saw is dead, long dead, and its moist gut and rigid casing are both, like the empty skin of the frog it sucked, dissolved, spread, still spreading right now, in the steer's capillaries, in the windblown smatter of clouds overhead, in the Sargasso Sea. The mockingbird that dropped furled from a roof . . . but this is no time to count my dead. That is night work. The dead are staring, underground, their sleeping heels in the air. [99-100]

The passage showcases Dillard's obsession with violence and beauty and displays her ability to learn, reflecting her entire work. In the passage's first sentence, Dillard manages to reduce initially paragraph-long meditations on her old tomcat, earthworm casting, Pittsburgh sycamores, and destroyed aphids to a few terse but punchy phrases. Each consumed element creates something new. But, in her avid destruction, Dillard outdoes the animals she describes. While those animals feed on foreign species, Dillard crafts a new experience for the reader out of previous passages from her own work. At first an innocent, eager observer, Dillard grows more savage -- and more beautiful -- than the objects of nature she so thoroughly describes in her book when she ruthlessly transforms her own text.


1. Four objects are destroyed in the passage's first sentence. How does the sentence's structure make the destruction lyrical?

2. Dillard writes that the steer drinks water that contains the disintegrated water bug. But she chooses to separate the water bug from the action itself by placing the drinking and the water bug in different sentences. What effect does this have?

3. Toward the end of the passage, Dillard reminds readers that she describes the dead. How does her word choice in the last sentence undermine labeling the dead as such?

4. Dillard draws attention to herself as a story teller by crafting a new passage out of passages found earlier in "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." Joan Didion also draws attention to herself as source of information in her essay "The White Album," from which the following passage is taken. How do their methods compare?

It seems to me now that during those years I was always writing down the license numbers of panel trucks, panel trucks circling the block, panel trucks parked across the street, panel trucks idling at the intersection. I put these license numbers in a dressing-table drawer where they could be found by the police when the time came. [19]

5.) Dillard uses specific factual knowledge to make relatively innocuous subjects shine bright for her readers. John McPhee also depends heavily on facts to tell his Alaska stories in "Coming into the Country." How does his use of facts in the passage below create a different effect from Dillard's?

The grizzly takes what he happens upon. He is an opportunistic eater. The predominance of the grizzly in his terrain is challenged by nothing but men and ravens. To frustrate ravens from stealing his food, he will lied down and sleep on top of a carcass, occasionally swatting the birds as if they were big black flies. He prefers a vegetable diet. He can pulp a moose head with a single blow, but he is not lusting always to kill, and when he moves through his country he can be something munificent, going into copses of willow among unfeeling moose and their calves, touching nothing, letting it all breathe as before. He may, though, get the head of a cow moose between his legs and rake her flanks with the five-inch knives that protrude from the ends of his paws. Opportunistic. [64]


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

Victorian Web Overview Annie Dillard

Last modified 27 November 2007