Religion and nature
Pilgrim is often noted for its study of theodicy, or its defense of God's goodness in the face of evil. The narrator attempts to reconcile the harsh natural world, with its "seemingly horrid mortality," with the belief in a benevolent God. Death is repeatedly mentioned as a natural, although cruel progression: "Evolution", the narrator states, "loves death more than it loves you or me." A passage in the second chapter of the book describes a frog being "sucked dry" by a "giant water bug" as the narrator watches; this necessary cruelty shows order in life and death, no matter how difficult it may be to watch. The narrator especially sees inherent cruelty in the insect world: "Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly ... insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or a shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect ... is an assault on all human virtue, all hope of a reasonable god." While she remains drawn to the ultimately repugnant and amoral natural world, she also questions her place in it. The narrator states, "I had thought to live by the side of the creek in order to shape my life to its free flow. But I seem to have reached a point where I must draw the line. It looks as though the creek is not buoying me up but dragging me down."
The title of the book suggests a pilgrimage, and yet the narrator does not stray far from her home near the creek: the journey is metaphysical. Margaret Loewen Reimer, in one of the first critical studies based on the book, noted that Dillard's treatment of the metaphysical is similar to that of Herman Melville. While "Melville's eyes saw mainly the darkness and the horror" of the natural world, possibly stemming from his New England Puritan roots, Dillard's "sinister" vision of the world comes "more from a horror at the seeming mindlessness of nature's design than from a deeply pervasive sense of evil." Unlike Melville, however, Dillard does not moralize the natural world or seek to find parallels in human cultural acts; focusing largely on observation as well as scientific analysis, Dillard follows the example of Charles Darwin and other naturalists.
The "pilgrim" narrator seeks to behold the sacred, which she dedicates herself to finding either by "stalking" or "seeing". At one point, she sees a cedar tree near her house "charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame" as the light hits it; this burning vision, reminiscent of creation's holy "fire", "comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it." Critic Jenny Emery Davidson believes that Dillard's act of "stalking" allows her to rewrite the hunting myth, a popular theme in nature writing which mediates the space between nature and humans. Although a long tradition of male nature writers—including James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London and Richard Nelson—have used this theme as "a symbolic ritual of violence", Dillard "ventures into the terrain of the hunt, employing its rhetoric while also challenging its conventions."
Seeing and awareness
While some critics describe Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as being more devoted to speculation of the divine and natural world than to self-exploration, others approach the work in terms of Dillard's attention to self-aware analysis. For example, critic Mary Davidson McConahay points to Dillard's Thoreauvian "commitment to awareness".
In the book, the narrator is not only self-aware, but also alert to every detail around her. Pilgrim's second chapter defines two types of seeing: as "verbalization" (active) and as "a letting go" (passive). The narrator refers to the difference between the two methods as "the difference between walking with and without a camera." Whereas the former requires the need to "analyze and pry", the latter only requires rapt attention. The act of seeing is exhaustive and exhausting, as one of the chapters relates: "I look at the water: minnows and shiners. If I am thinking minnows, a carp will fill my brain till I scream. I look at the water's surface: skaters, bubbles, and leaves sliding down. Suddenly my own face, reflected, startles me witless. Those snails have been tracking my face! Finally, with a shuddering wrench of the will, I see clouds, cirrus clouds. I'm dizzy. I fall in. This looking business is risky." Sandra Johnson refers to the structure of the book itself leading to an epiphany of self-awareness, or a "mystical experience"; as the narrator watches a falling maple key, she feels "lost, sunk ... gazing toward Tinker Mountain and feeling the earth reel down".