Thoreau’s Dilling?

By: Julia Manaraze, a Humanities major.

The following work was created for ENG 347: American Environmental Writing.

Brief description: “In this essay, I sought to rectify the common misconception that Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is merely a “new-and-improved” Walden.  Though Dillard greatly admired Henry David Thoreau’s work and even wrote her senior thesis on Walden, her project is one of a vastly different scope.  While Thoreau seems to criticize man more than any other creature, Dillard makes the astute observation that, really, it is man who is moral and Nature that is amoral.  Comparing God to the Creator of the Old Testament rather than a Divine Artist (such as what Thoreau conceptualizes), Dillard’s Pilgrim provides a unique and penetrating view into the heart of life here on earth, ultimately arguing that our world is incomprehensible to us all. “


Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a brilliant writer who models her book in many ways after the subject of her master’s degree thesis: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  The two literary works are often compared, and Diana Saverin (a writer for The Atlantic) says, “In many ways, Pilgrim reads like an updated version of Walden, and that’s exactly the kind of book Dillard was trying to write” (Saverin).  Though the authors are similar in many ways, and Dillard is obviously strongly influenced by Thoreau’s work, the methods and outcomes of the authors’ creations are quite different.  Dillard seems to have a greater respect for humanity than Thoreau does for many reasons, including her heightened awareness of scientific evolution.  Consequently, while Thoreau argues for nature’s vitality and innocence, crafting an image of the creator as a divine artist, Dillard claims nature’s death and cruelty are more similar to a soulless machine.  Also, divinity, which is so apparent to Thoreau in nature and uncomplicated in its “pure” and “innocent” cosmic expression is quite controversial and difficult for Dillard to understand as she parallels nature’s creator more with the Old Testament God than a benevolent artist.  Aspects such as these make Dillard’s supposed “updated version of Walden” nearly a different project entirely.

Thoreau’s Dilling?

Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek made a distinct mark in its genre as one of the first books written by a woman about nature that received such nationwide success.  The complexity, lyrical elements, and substance of Dillard’s work have truly set it apart in the environmental writing field, and its similarities to “the first American environmentalist saint” Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden have made it especially infamous (Buell 527).  Dillard was an avid fan of Thoreau’s and even did her master’s thesis on Walden, yet Thoreau is rarely directly mentioned throughout the book and is usually only hinted at or perceived as an underlying structure or movement in the text.  Though Pilgrim is often compared to Thoreau’s book and even “reads like an updated version of Walden,” some aspects of Dillard’s work have clearly been updated to the extent that her work has morphed into a vastly different project (Saverin). Scientific knowledge has increased since Thoreau published Walden, as he, “lived well before principles of genetic inheritance and behavioral evolution were formulated or understood” and as such, his ideas about Nature are more positive and artistic than Dillard’s (Saunders 38).  Modern scientific prevalence, though only one topical thread of many in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, permeates throughout the book and affects other ideas and conclusions Dillard draws, giving her a more realistic, physical perspective than Thoreau.  She recognizes the way that the system of evolution acts less as a beautiful piece of artwork (which Thoreau claims) and more like a brutal machine, and thus struggles to understand what type of creator would make such a world, eventually reconciling Him as a model closer to the God of the Old Testament than a benevolent artist.

Researcher Judith Saunders counters this assertion, however, as she proposes that Walden can easily be read through a modern evolutionary lens without much stretching the inferences Thoreau makes about nature.  Though Saunders admits that “Thoreau lived well before principles of genetic inheritance and behavioral evolution were formulated or understood,” she believes that since Thoreau was forward-thinking and noticed a certain malleability in nature as well as his “kinship” with it, that he was well on his way to understanding evolutionary processes and embracing them (38).  She even points out how near the end of his life after becoming, “Acquainted with pre-Darwinian versions of evolutionary theory, [Thoreau] demonstrated predictable ‘receptivity to Darwin’s Origin of Species,’” adopting some of its theories as his own (42).  Saunders also highlights how a, “powerful identification with the well-being and continuity of the biosphere as a whole serves as necessary context for [Thoreau’s] most controversial social criticisms and personal abnegations” in Walden (60).  To even perceive Walden in the manner that Thoreau intended, readers must agree with his proposition to treat nature as an immediate, rather than distant family member, embracing nature as it is intertwined in our lives.  From Saunder’s summarization, it seems Thoreau had a working perception of evolution that allowed him to connect to his surroundings on a deeper level than many of his contemporaries and gave him a more accurate perception than his counterparts.

Although Saunders makes a strong case for Thoreau’s receptivity towards evolution and modern scientific thought, it seems Thoreau views nature as more “innocent” and “pure” than it perhaps warrants, seeing it shaped by a figure closer akin to an “artist” than a brutal deity (98).  In a passage that echoes marvelously Thoreau’s wonder (as opposed to disgust) at nature’s brutality, he says,

I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp—tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal (102).

Nature’s viciousness is not particularly surprising, but Thoreau’s “impression” that a world in which animals eat one another and are “sacrificed” and “squashed” every day still speaks of “universal innocence” seems overly optimistic.  Because nature and energy recycle as death gives way to life, Thoreau concludes that the entire system is “innocent” and “pure,” but that is too great an inference to make. In the chapter “Spring,” Thoreau explains how, while in nature, he feels as though he stands, “in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,” comparing the world to a canvas of sorts painted by a careful creator (98).  Nature is so uplifting to Thoreau that he can easily picture the designer as compassionate, beauty obsessed inventor.  Consequently, Thoreau maintains the notion of a blameless, unsullied creation in the midst of chaos and pain, giving his writing an optimistic (or somewhat naïve) tone.

Contrarily, Dillard’s perspective of nature is based more factually upon the physical phenomenon she observes, which, for the most part, is brutal and morally starved.  Thoreau argues that nature is a model for mankind in many ways and makes bold claims such as that Walden pond itself, “was made deep and pure for a symbol,” to man of high matters like eternity, but Dillard shatters this philosophical image in the section titled “Fecundity” (92).  After discussing the overwhelming beauty and throbbing, bountiful presence in nature for nine chapters, Dillard completely undermines her previous groundwork and berates herself, saying in chapter ten that, “the landscape of the intricate world that I have painted is inaccurate and lopsided. It is too optimistic” (163).  She acknowledges that her earlier “notion of the infinite variety of detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one” and that, “in complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance,” but this understanding is not comprehensive, and as such, it shortchanges readers into believing a lie or half-truth (163).  Dillard expounds that the world is actually a terrible one, as “the sea is a cup of death and the land is a stained altar stone” (177).  Even the “intricacy” and “extravagance” that Dillard praises as it manifests in beauty and magnificence throughout nature, she admits ultimately, “is holocaust, parody, glut” (170).  The “extravagance” gives way to “pressure,” which is how everything exists: under pressure to survive, procreate, then die (170).  As Dillard watches “mothers devouring their own offspring,” she is left in shambles, broken over a world that rushes on, unknowing to the reality that it is ceaselessly dying (171).

Due to Dillard’s understanding of evolution, she believes that humanity is either “moral” and righteous, and that nature is “amoral,” or that her conscious is what is askew, for she cannot settle her morality with nature’s amorality comfortably.  Her uneasiness with nature’s “brutality” is so acute that she can only think of two solutions to reconcile her worldview (179).  The first is that people, “are right, and the whole universe is wrong,” or, “that creation itself is blamelessly, benevolently askew by its very free nature, and that it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss” (179, 80).  She probes the thought that the world is vindicated in its harshness and that humans are the “soft” or weak ones with their “emotions” to “brutality” (179, 180).  The depth of her turmoil at nature’s “brutality” is quite apparent, as she laments the, “universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die–does not care if it itself grinds to a halt” (179).  She even proposes that all humans need to get “lobotomies to restore us to our natural state” which is the condition of the entire inhuman world: stark amorality (180).  Dillard claims that human’s emotions and consciousness that supposedly evolved are incompatible with their environments, for thriving in this planet’s system means one has to make “a pact with the devil” (183).

Therefore, Dillard would disagree with Thoreau’s idea that nature is somehow a model for humanity, as she argues that the two entities are incomparable so long as people have their morals and the world has its evolution (179).  She makes the powerful statement that, “There is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises,” proving that even mankind at its worst cannot trump a balmy day in the life of an insect (179).  Furthermore, it seems moot to ignore the brutal bits of nature and only discuss the endearing points. Thoreau, however, plows onward, often praising nature’s surety and vitality as opposed to men who, “are sound asleep nearly half [their] time,” (106).  Yet he perhaps is missing a key point.  The reason for nature’s wakefulness is less likely due to its superiority to mankind but more probably due to the fact that if nature is not alert, it will quickly be eaten.  In an amoral world where, Dillard explains, “Anything can happen, and anything does,” creatures can ill afford to trust their surroundings, so perhaps people’s complacency is not such a bad omen for humanity after all (170).

Since Dillard sees that, “we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world,” she questions what kind of creator could allow such viciousness in nature while cursing humans with the ability to perceive it; accordingly, she reckons the creator as more of an Old Testament God than a divine artist like Thoreau suggests (179).  Dillard cannot understand how a god not only would create such a base world, but why the “creator could be so cruel” as to let humans and some “higher” animals “care” about the cruelty (180, 81).  This fact prompts her to make the shocking statement that, “We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet” (179).  These are her true feelings on the matter, but she complicates the picture later by admitting there is a degree of mystery which nullifies her ability to comprehend the creator and His ways.  In her final chapter titled “The Waters of Separation,” she parallels the creator to the Old Testament God by making countless references to Israel, Levitical Law, and prophets. One memorable analogy Dillard makes is when she asks whether the giant water bug that drained the frog had, “the frog by the back parts, or by the hollow of the thigh?” (269).  This question does many things at once, but one of the most interesting results is that it paints a picture of God and humanity in a death grip in which He has all the control but is “humoring us” as we demand answers.  The obvious reference to Genesis 32:25 in which Jacob wrestles with God who “touched the hollow of his thigh” and put it, “out of joint” (King James Version) shows how Dillard believes we are at a powerful and terrible God’s mercy, and yet it is our duty to “speak up for the creation” like Jacob did, even if we allocate some dislocations in the process (269).

This world is a brutal, unpleasant one Annie Dillard shows readers, but it is also the only one we have.  Though she struggles throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to understand why so much waste, brutality, and fecundity is necessary, she acknowledges her own limited perspective and the vastness so far outside of her understanding that the designer of the universe would have to encompass.  Comparisons made between Walden and Pilgrim can be helpful, but they pitifully shortchange the project that Dillard has so beautifully executed.  Perhaps the most distinct difference between her work and Thoreau’s are their scientific presumptions, but Dillard also has a way of perceiving which should not be trifled with.  While Thoreau ascends often into matters of philosophy and finding a greater meaning for humanity in nature, Dillard approaches nature as it is and as a separate entity from people.  Rather than always trying to compare man and his environment, Dillard contrasts them and says they are so different due to their morality versus lack thereof as to avoid comparison almost entirely.  The effect is confusing and a bit daunting, and yet it seems fitting to believe that the world which was made in “incomprehensible earnest” has a place carved out especially for us mostly bald, weeping figures who bemoan nature’s brutality while we bulldoze it into oblivion.

Works Cited

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Buell, Lawrence. “Thoreau and the Natural Environment.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Joel Myserson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 527. Print. Cambridge Companions to Literature.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial, 2007. 92, 163, 170, 171, 177, 179-181, 183, 269. Print.

Saunders, Judith P. “Biophilia in Thoreau’s Walden.” American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2018, pp. 37–60. JSTOR,

Saverin, Diana. “The Thoreau of the Suburbs.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 Feb. 2015,

Thoreau, Henry. Walden. Signet, 2012. 38, 42, 60, 98, 102, 106.

Julia Manaraze ’21 is a local of the Chestertown area but thinks that the southern states are much more fun.  She enjoys anything that seems different, whether that is participating in male-dominated sports or trying food from different cultures.  Coming into college, she had no idea what major she was interested in, but now knows that the Humanities department embraces the flexibility and eclecticism she loves.  In her spare time, she loves to draw, sing, write, play the piano, lift weights, read, and practice mixed martial arts (of which she is the Club President at Washington College).  She thanks WCR for this opportunity to showcase a portion of her academic efforts.

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