Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

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!

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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 subject to forces outside himself, forces beyond control, but unlike the paper, the squirrel can recognize his own dangerous situation and make a bid to save himself. The danger calls into action all his “great purpose and the alertness of his dancing.” This is the significance of the poem’s last three lines in which the poet uses a bardic voice to say that he needs the squirrel whose “wild dash” ends with his “rushing up his green ungoverned hillside,” a hillside that is the color of life and which, like life itself, Stern implies, cannot be governed.

The twentieth century American novelist and philosopher Walker Percy explored the implications of a common phenomenon—in times of great crisis people often seem to rise above their ordinary dull concerns to new heights of understanding and experience. They may treat each other with generosity, even with heroism. In the aftermath of hurricanes, in the midst of life-threatening disease, people may suddenly recognize that their own actions can give meaning to life even if they cannot extend it. That is the existential crisis in which the squirrel finds himself, and the green field to which he escapes is like the strawberry of the Zen parable, all the sweeter for being snatched out of peril.

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