Chapter One: ‘‘Heaven and Earth in Jest’’ The opening of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of the most famous passages from the book. ‘‘I used to have a cat,’’ the book begins. The narrator reports that she was in the habit of sleeping naked in front of an open window, and the cat would use that window to return to the house at night after hunting. In the morning, the narrator would awaken to find her body ‘‘covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. ’’ This opening passage introduces several important ideas and approaches that will operate through the entire book.
Dillard insistently presents the natural world as both beautiful and cruel, like the image of roses painted in blood. She demonstrates throughout the book that to discover nature, one must actively put oneself in its way. The narrator sleeps naked, with the windows open, to put no barriers between herself and the natural world. But the natural world is a manifestation of God, and it is God she is really seeking to understand through the book. Dillard introduces the theme of religion as the narrator washes the bloodstains off her body, wondering whether they are ‘‘the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. ’ Finally, the anecdote structure itself is typical; throughout the book, Dillard weaves together passages of reflection, description, and narration. The book’s structure is loosely chronological, moving from January to December. ‘‘Heaven and Earth in Jest’’ is set in January, and several passages in present tense read like a naturalist’s journal. But Dillard freely uses memories from other seasons and other years. ‘‘I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood,’’ the narrator says, explaining both her method and her purpose. Chapter Two: ‘‘Seeing’’
The ten sections of chapter two all explore the question of what it means to really see. The narrator explains how she has trained herself to see insects in flight, hidden birds in trees, and other common occurrences in nature that most people miss because the events are too small or happen too quickly. She spends hours on a log watching for muskrats and brings home pond water to study under a microscope. In a long passage, she tells about patients who benefitted from the first cataract operations, and their difficulties in trying to see with their eyes after a lifetime of blindness.
As the narrator contemplates different ways of seeing, she realizes, ‘‘I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. ’’ Chapter Three: ‘‘Winter’’ ‘‘Winter’’ begins on the first of February with the movements of large flocks of starlings that live in the area. Down by the creek, the narrator watches a coot and thinks about the frogs and turtles asleep under the mud. Her forays outside are shorter, and she spends evenings in front of the fireplace reading books about travel and about nature.
Her only companions are a goldfish named Ellery Channing (after a friend of Henry David Thoreau) and the spiders that are allowed ‘‘the run of the house. ’’ Chapter Four: ‘‘The Fixed’’ In this chapter, the narrator discusses insects and stars. She has learned to recognize praying mantis egg cases in the wild, and she has brought one home and tied it to a branch near her window so she can observe the hatching. In the cold of February, she thinks about June and the steadiness of insects and the seeming fixedness of the stars. Chapter Five: ‘‘Untying the Knot’’
This short chapter takes its title from a snake skin the narrator finds in the woods. The skin appears to be tied in a knot, continuous, as the seasons are ‘‘continuous loops. ’’ The narrator contemplates the changing of the seasons and hopes to be alert and notice the exact moment when winter becomes spring. Chapter Six: ‘‘The Present’’ It is March. Surprisingly, as the chapter opens, the narrator is at a gas station on an interstate highway, talking with the station attendant. But it is not the conversation that is important; rather, the narrator focuses on a beagle puppy, whose fur she rubs as she sips her coffee.
For a moment, she feels entirely alive: ‘‘This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. ’’ The narrator reflects on human consciousness and self-consciousness, which act against being in the present and against being in the presence of God. She affirms her intention to push away connections with cities, with people. The flowing creek is new every second, and it is in the creek that grace can be found.
Chapter Seven: ‘‘Spring’’ Spring unfolds through April and May, and the narrator has missed spring’s beginning. Plants are greening and flowering, and hibernating animals are reappearing. The narrator feels an urgency to examine every creature quickly before summer comes and they begin to decay and devour each other. Chapter Eight: ‘‘Intricacy’’ This chapter contains more meditation than anecdote. In June, the narrator ponders the smallest things—red blood cells in a goldfish’s tail, blooming plankton, the horsehair worm, molecules, and atoms.
In the intricacy of the universe, she finds confirmation of God’s presence and plan: ‘‘Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle. ’’ Chapter Nine: ‘‘Flood’’ Like many of Dillard’s chapter titles, ‘‘The Flood’’ is meant to be taken both literally and figuratively. This chapter, which opens with the first day of summer, describes an actual flooding of Tinker Creek and its effects on the landscape, the animals, and the narrator’s human neighbors. It is among the most consistently narrative chapters of the book.
The rising water brings with it a flood of emotions and thoughts, leaving the narrator feeling ‘‘dizzy, drawn, mauled. ’’ Chapter Ten: ‘‘Fecundity’’ Fecundity means ‘‘fruitfulness,’’ and this chapter explores plants and animals, including fish, poppies, field mice, and bamboo, that grow quickly or produce large numbers of offspring. Of course, these creatures are so prolific because they must be: of a million fish eggs laid, only a few will survive to hatch. ‘‘What kind of a world is this, anyway,’’ the narrator asks. ‘‘Are we dealing in life, or in death? ’’ Chapter Eleven: ‘‘Stalking’’
As summer progresses, the narrator practices her skills at stalking animals, especially animals that do not wish to be seen, including fish, herons, and muskrats. As she watches fish, she thinks about fish as an ancient symbol for Christ and for the spirit. In a long passage, she describes how she has spent years learning to stalk muskrats. But stalking animals is not the end in itself: ‘‘You have to stalk the spirit, too. ’’ Chapter Twelve: ‘‘Nightwatch’’ In late summer, the narrator watches grasshoppers and locusts. She takes a sleeping bag and a sandwich to spend a night outside.
As she watches the sunset and listens to the night sounds, she thinks, ‘‘this is my city, my culture, and all the world I need. ’’ Chapter Thirteen: ‘‘The Horns of the Altar’’ At mid-September, the narrator ponders poisons, parasites, and pests. In the natural world, creatures eat one another or die of other causes. The chapter title refers to altars used for sacrifices in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Animals to be sacrificed would be tied to ‘‘horns,’’ or rising side pieces, so that they would be suspended above burning coals.
The narrator is aware of herself as a potential sacrifice, as eventual food for maggots and parasites. ‘‘I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. ’’ Chapter Fourteen: ‘‘Northing’’ As October and November pass, the narrator thinks about heading north, facing directly into the coming winter. Watching butterflies and geese migrating south, she wishes to go north, to find a place where the wind and the view will be unimpeded, where she can find an austere simplicity. She believes that stillness will open her up to the presence of God. Chapter Fifteen: ‘‘The Waters of Separation’’
At the winter solstice, the weather is unusually warm. The narrator wanders through the brown landscape following a bee and reflecting on the year that has passed. The chapter title refers to ceremonial water used in the Old Testament for purifying the unclean. For Dillard, Tinker Creek flows with ‘‘the waters of beauty and mystery’’ and also with the waters of separation. In contemplating the natural world, she approaches God but separates herself from other people and from the things of this world. She drinks of this water willingly and with thanks.