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...