Posted: March 18th, 2023
Metaphors of “Winter” from a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — the Author and her World at Rest, both in harmony with and against the natural world
Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, is set in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The story is a kind of modern, female version of Thoreau’s Walden. Dillard strives to live in the woods, alone, and reflects upon the changing natural world she spies from her relatively static vantage point in nature. Chapter 3 is entitled “Winter.” Despite the chilling cold Annie Dillard must face in the mountains (although Dillard occasionally reassures the reader that the South, despite the frequent fierce mountain winds, is not so very cold in absolute terms) the chapter not only focuses on Dillard’s struggle to survive the elements and the wilderness with few resources. Chapter 3 also includes the author’s perceptions of the local animal populations struggle to cope without the help of civilization’s comforts. She uses both literary metaphors and also facts about the animal world, gleaned from scientific as well as literary study.
Dillard notes that her attempts to survive alone, indoors, means she must “bloom” like a “forced forsythia,” or like a delicate, fragrant, and hot house grown flower in all of its glory. Because she is exposed to warmth and sun artificially, against the nature of the climate, she is full of energy indoors, yet the outdoors strikes her carefully tended constitution as unduly harsh. This metaphor suggests that the winter is not keeping with the author’s natural inkling for outdoors and warmth. (40) But still Dillard bears up. Thus, Dillard, by this metaphor, suggests she is a summer or spring person by nature who prefers to be free and unencumbered, but there is an incongruity between her inner nature, and the outer, winter nature of the harsh mountains. Still, despite her discomfort, Dillard refuses to ‘tinker’ with nature unlike some humans — no pun intended upon the title of the book!
Even if she could, she suggests that this is dangerous The chapter begins with a tale of how the starlings came to America, an act of humanity interfering with the natural balance even more noxious than the use of chemical pesticides that Dillard eventually eschews to kill insects.
The need to bear whatever nature gives to one is underlined by the cautionary fable of a “wealthy New York drug manufacturer” and Shakespeare fan that decided to bring British starlings to America. The manufacturer was charmed by the Bard’s reference to the starling in one of the plays. However, because the starlings lacked natural predators in North America, starlings now “compete with native birds for food and resting sites,” and almost always win over the native birds because starlings have few natural enemies — other than angry farmers armed with rifles! (38-39) What was a beautiful and beloved bird, properly controlled in its native England, became a pest and a nuisance to human beings and to native birds in America. Even their droppings become noxious waste, as the birds tend to move in large packs or hordes. (37-38) Being ‘out of’ one’s natural environment, as Dillard is, can be dangerous — but so can tinkering with that environment to make it more amenable to one’s own status as a stranger.
Thus, when Dillard stresses that she still has some of civilization’s aids to help her survive and admits she used to use carbon tetrachloride to kill insects and spiders and to protect her from their invasions, even in her rustic surroundings, she begins to realize her mistake, to tamper with nature. In her home, housebound and hiding from wind and snow, she sees herself as part of the animal world. She even finds compassion in her heart for the tiny spiders, and cannot kill them with her ready chemicals as she could before: “Even the spiders are restless under this wind, roving about alert-eyed over their fluff in every corner.” Restless herself, she allows the spiders the run of the house so that they might kill the more noxious, smaller insects that bother her in the bathroom. (52) Thus, she finds some balance with her uninvited eight-legged ‘companions’ indoors.
The dependency of Dillard upon even the small spiders underlines the author’s practical compassion and lessons learned about living with, rather than against nature. The spider’s patient web spinning during the winter shows how it is necessary for Dillard to become dependant on the natural world, rather than upon humans alone or upon chemicals and tools that tamper with nature in a human fashion. To survive the winter physically and psychologically, she must trust her instinctual place in the larger animal firmament. As she observes the spiders that keep her own home insect-free, their work becomes a metaphor for Dillard. They lead her to her spiritual musings about the perfect symmetries that exist in nature. “Because the light just happened to be such that I couldn’t see the web at all. I had read that spiders lay their major straight lines with fluid that isn’t sticky, and then lays a non-sticky spiral. Then they walk along” the thread, weaving until the major lines are complete, then moving on to the minor lines of their webs, bit by bit constructing beauty, as Dillard does in her writing. (53) The winter forces the ‘forsythia’ of a writer to a slower pace, governed by patience and solitude.
Dealing with the winter is a physical and a spiritual test. It tests one’s endurance. Unlike the dying queen bees, Dillard does not have to regard the winter only with the emotion of fear and despair. She notes that only some kinds of bees are dead. The flitting honeybees can survive the winter on their stores of sugar. The workers of the colony survive, while the slower and less industrious queen does not, despite her status — another, metaphorical reminder of the power of industry and the ability to reap one’s summer and fall toil in the coldness of winter. Of the hardier insects and animals, ants, ladybugs, and bears alike hide, waiting for spring and living collectively in colonies and dens, all reaping the harvest of their labor and toil. (49)
Dillard still occasionally feels lonely her observations of the natural world such as her goldfish Ellery as she watches the fish bumping its head against the fishbowl of its own glass solitude. But Dillard knows chose her solitude, even though she may occasionally chafe at it. The animals that must cope with the excessive outdoor harshness of winter with torpor and withdrawal did not chose their location in the great, yet unsparing cruelty of the winter, even if they may lack some of Dillard’s alien, forced forsythia energy. The animals must cope with a ‘survival of the fittest’ struggle, as the large, furry spiders that suck the blood from hummingbirds, both hiding from the elements in the barn, are contrasted with the more civilized life of the writer indoors and her small spinning spiders. Dillard reflects that she always has her carefully constructed shelter, however full of ‘cabin fever’ she may feel. And all of the animals, however fragile, at least attempt imperfectly to survive — even humming birds, even the slow-moving slugs must hibernate in waterproof sacs. In winter, everything either dies or stays “mutely alive” and hidden even in the relatively warm waters of the Virginal and the fish like carp dwell beneath the ice. (48)
Thus, Dillard seems to see herself like the carp, like her fish in her home, like her friends the spiders — all still moving and alive, but somewhat slower beneath the ice, and isolated from the busy, moving, industrious created world of mankind in artificial hothouse dwellings. And through such reflections even in the stillness of the harsh winters, “something perfect is born,” is always being born, in Dillard’s eyes, when one is in tune with the natural world. When one does not chafe against winter, but allows the spiders to clean one’s house and when one takes the time to observe, even a naturally summery and outdoors dweller like the author can find peace and fulfillment. And even when the wind howls, “something wholly new” always “rides the wind,” even in winter, “something fleet and fleeting I’m likely to miss. To sleep, spiders and fish; the wind won’t stop, but the house will hold. To shelter, starlings and coot; bow to the wind,” but the wind will break neither the author’s spirit nor her house, she proudly notes to the reader, so long as she can find meaning and beauty in its metaphors. (54)
Works Cited (Dillard, Annie. A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1998)
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