The book contains fifteen chapters in which the author provides lessons in how one can go about viewing the world differently even when that word is confined entirely within one’s own region, city, zip code borders, neighborhood or backyard. Following the lead of Thoreau, Dillard sets out to record a journal of the mind that is highly descriptive the plant and animal life in that part of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia she called home.
Chapter One: Heaven and Earth in Jest The narrator informs the reader that she sleeps nude in front of an open window. This information is not intended to be lascivious in any way; it is the author’s way of conveying that what follows is a memoir of someone determined to allow as little boundaries as possible between herself and the world around her.
Chapter Two: Seeing This chapter’s title says it all: everything within is devoted to the author’s commitment to see everything around her in a new way. Along the way, the chapter covers this topic from learning how to spot birds in trees that remain hidden to casual viewers to interviews with patients given the ability to see after a cataract operation.
Chapter Three: Winter Actually, most of this chapter misses the season after which it is named: the action begins in February when the weather outside is so frigid that much of her time is spend indoors reading travel books.
Chapter Four: The Fixed The narrator is still quite cold and switches between looking into the massive expanse of the sky above and the minute details of insect life below. The title refers to the fixed state of the stars and steadiness of insect life.
Chapter Five: Untying the Knot In which untying the knot made by discarded snake skin convinces the narrator to focus on determining the precise moment in which winter gives way to spring.
Chapter Six: The Present A stop at a gas station in which the narrator absently pets a beagle becomes a moment of epiphany. She becomes alert to the reality that one can live entirely within the present…in the moment…unfettered by the ghosts of the past or what looms in the future. She resolves to push out of her consciousness all that obstructs such awareness of the infinite the present.
Chapter Seven: Spring A failure: she missed the moment when spring was born and winter died. She feels urged to study the creatures more closely before they eat each other and leave rotting carcasses in the summer sun.
Chapter Eight: Intricacy The intricacy of nature’s smallest characters provides proof of the existence of God and the clarity that He has a plan.
Chapter Nine: Flood On the first day of summer Tinker Creek floods, affecting animals, plants and man alike. The way in which the flood waters have the power to change things also floods the narrator with an abundance of emotional responses, sometimes in conflict with each other.
Chapter Ten: Fecundity What do fish, field mice and bamboo have in common? They are all very fruitful and all multiply at a fast pace. The fact that this fecund nature has mostly to do with a low survival rate does not pass unnoticed.
Chapter Eleven: Stalking The narrator is the stalker of this chapter. But the book doesn’t suddenly become a thriller. She describes in detail how to go about stalking animals for observation, especially those that no not necessarily wish to be observed.
Chapter Twelve: Nightwatch A sleeping bag. A sandwich. An overnight stay watching locusts. She discovers that such is her world and all the world she needs.
Chapter Thirteen: The Horns of the Altar The altar of the title is reference to where animals were sacrificed in the stories of the Bible. With fall approaching, the narrator’s focus has turned to the inevitability of death, decay and rebirth.
Chapter Fourteen: Northing The sight of flocks of geese overhead migrating southward as winter is on its way has the effect of the narrator dreaming of the exact opposite. She considers the possibility of heading farther north in search of an even more austere existence and an even clearer view of the world above and below.
Chapter Fifteen: The Waters of Separation It is the winter solstice and the weather is unseasonably warm. Contemplation of the past year makes her realize that Tinker Creek has provided sustenance for an experience that has moved her farther way from other people while bringing her closer than ever to God.