Pilgrim at the Charles: Dillardian Reflections in Boston

In Lower Allston, where the Charles River winds south bordering Watertown, Publick Theatre sits atop a small hill, surrounded by a moat of natural or human making.  This circle of water about Publick Theatre is connected to the Charles’ south side, but sits in stillness apart from the breeze that was creating ripples on the surface.  Whether the theatre cut this moat or is simply taking advantage of it, it nonetheless serves as a natural barrier, a wall of exclusion promising to give anyone attempting to sneak in for a show soggy shoes and pants. 

On the far side of the moat, I spotted a squirrel climbing a tree.  Up and up it went, climbing out over the moat and ascending naked branches that got thinner with each miniature step.  As it neared the tips of the branches, from my vantage the sun was directly behind it.  Refusing to turn away, I squinted, not wanting to miss the adventurous moment that I sensed was impending—branches and critter silhouetted in blinding light.  Somewhat to my chagrin, there was no need of a grand leap.  The climatic moment was understated, yet I nonetheless gave a small, inward celebration when the squirrel transferred to the uppermost branches of a tree on my side of the moat and began the descent. 

As it skittered down the branches to the center of the tree and the trunk, I noticed perched there another squirrel, an attractive one, posed confidently on a stub of a branch, staring at me as it cracked into some variety of nut, the remainders of its kind covering the ground.  Perhaps because of the noise of the cracking, this squirrel didn’t notice the incoming visitor until it was almost upon him.  The moat-crosser, though, paused momentarily before the acorn-cracker gave a brief 180 degree chase.  It was at this point I first caught a good glimpse of this squirrel that I had come to admire for flaunting the futility of the moat.  This hero was far less attractive than the glossy coated one that had posed nutcracking.  Its coat, which ought to have been gray, was mostly discolored brown and white and its fur was unusually short around the shoulders.  It looked like this hero had, some weeks ago, had the misfortune of meeting the jaws of some unfriendly creature, or perhaps some lice or disease. 

The meaning of this series of moments, the affect of which moved subtly from mere noticing, to anticipation, then celebration and finally to silence, isn’t something that reveals itself immediately, nor in words.  I could, I suppose, tie it up tidy by affirming Annie Dillard’s observation that “It’s rough out there” and add that even apparent heroes are victims in the wild and isn’t that the way life is.  But the potency of the moment when the once-haloed squirrel’s tattered body was revealed, was something best enjoyed through Dillard’s second way of seeing (33).  Rather, than busily narrating its significance in an abundance of verbiage, it is known in “letting go”.  Truly “seeing” this was a fleeting moment of being “transfixed and emptied,” of briefly “forgetting my own name” (33, 35).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard.

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