Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A Zen parable tells of a man who has fallen off a cliff; he clings to the side of a steep precipice by holding onto a single root. If he lets go, he will fall to his death. If he scrambles back up to the top, a ferocious tiger waits to devour him. Suddenly he notices a single strawberry growing from the cliffside near his face. Cautiously he uses one hand to pick and eat the berry: How sweet it tastes!

The speaker of the parable uses it to suggest how intense life and its experiences can seem when one is in mortal danger. Because, as philosophers have often noted, no one leaves this world alive, there is a sense that all people are in mortal danger. Like Stern’s squirrel, each person may sense that at any moment he or she could be flattened by huge truck wheels. This seems to be what Stern is suggesting when he says that he wants the squirrel-mind, not the paper-mind.

Significantly, the squirrel’s experience is not a pleasant one. Trapped in terror on the highway, he braces for death or escape with “his clawed feet spread, his whole soul quivering.” The effects of the truck are not simply philosophical, perhaps not philosophical at all; they are thoroughly physical. The little animal’s hair is blown by the engine’s hot wind; its loud noise shakes his entire being. This is the sort of engagement Stern prefers to the passivity of the paper, which is blown around the landscape with no sense of itself. Like the paper, the squirrel is...

(The entire section is 480 words.)