Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


Annie Dillard takes a meandering route, moving forward and backward and around again as she writes about how she attempted to search out gifts from the universe in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She equates this exploration to how as a child she would leave pennies along the sidewalk near her home for anyone to find, sometimes leaving chalk arrows, or clues for them to see the penny. (Dillard 1) In the same vein of a passerby finding the pennies, she set out to find presents left by the universe in the backyard of her home on Tinker Creek. Dillard explained, “I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises” (1). Dillard’s view of nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is both beautiful and sometimes risky and horrible as she sets about finding how to see nature’s gifts by seeing what isn’t seen by the natural eye, by seeing before understanding, and by seeing with the senses by letting go.

 When Dillard begins trying to see the gifts of the universe, she simply looks, being observant as she walks around Tinker Creek. She knows that if you look for clues like the cut wheat-stalks of grain, she will find mice, or if she looks for caterpillar droppings, she should be able to find the caterpillar (Dillard 1). However in the reflective style that is intertwined with her observations, Dillard also realizes that experts or lovers of certain subjects (like experts of mice or horses) are able to see things that the mere observer misses. At one point an airplane flew overhead and its shadow on the creek bottom gave sight to gifts Dillard could not see outside of the shadow. “At once a black fin slit the pink cloud on the water…I saw hints of hulking and underwater shadows, two pale splashes out of the water, and round ripples rolling close…and out of that violet, a sudden enormous black body arced over the water” (Dillard 4). As she reflects on this, she recalled a time when she saw clouds reflected in the water that she could not see in the sky. She later read the explanation that “polarized light from the sky is very much weakened by perfection, but the light in clouds isn’t polarized. So invisible clouds pass among visible clouds, till all slide over the mountains; so a greater light extinguishes a lesser as though it didn’t exist” (Dillard 4). Dillard admits that although this experience led her to see the beauty of the water, she saw it because she stayed out later than was wise. She could have easily walked into a rattlesnake or other creature. Another time she got so caught up in walking hawks through her binoculars that she nearly staggered off a cliff (Dillard 5). As Dillard sought finding the gifts of nature, she tried to relearn how to see before understanding.

Dillard read a book about the experiences of blind patients who had surgery and could then see. They had no understanding of what they were looking at and so saw the world in an entirely different way. Dillard attempted to recreate what they must have seen but learned that it didn’t work as knowledge of what she is seeing is too ingrained. There was a child that “when her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it’” (Dillard 7). Dillard saw the color-patches the newly sighted did for a while, but could not sustain it. She lamented, “But the color-patches of infancy swelled as meaning filled them; they arrayed themselves in solemn ranks down distance which unrolled and stretched before me like a plain. The moon rocketed away. I live now in a world of shadows that take shape and distance color, a world where space makes a kind of terrible sense…the fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window—silver and green and shapeshifting blue—is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn” (Dillard 8). She wishes that the people who had just received their sight would have been given brushes to paint what they were seeing before understanding took over and then we could see that as well (Dillard 8). But there is another type of seeing, she moves on, seeing by letting go and giving into the senses.

Dillard says that letting go is like going from seeing the world through the lens of a camera, looking one from shot to the next, or letting the camera go and allowing everything in. In one moment she was looking into the creek, not seeing much, when she let go and “blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever” (Dillard 9). She warns that although wonderful, staying in that sense-filled state can lead to a type of madness as it will “flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness” (Dillard 9). Dillard concludes that with all of her searching that “Seeing is a gift and surprise” (9).

Dillard’s search in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek turns out to be an interesting guide to go about seeking the beauty and sometimes horrors of nature by looking at what isn’t normally seen through the natural eye, by trying to glimpse what might be seen without labeling it with our own understanding, and by using our senses and letting go. What Annie Dillard learned is that “although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought…a gift and a total surprise” (9). Dillard searched for years among the peach trees to see the same light the girl who had been blind once saw, but it was when she wasn’t looking and “was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance” (Dillard 9). Just like finding a penny in an unexpected way, the universe gave Annie Dillard the prize she had been seeking all along.


Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperPerennial, 1974. WayBack Machine,