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The Weasel and Us
Toella Pliakas on self-preservation versus instinct.
I read “Living Like Weasels” years ago, for a class. I’d long forgotten everything there is to remember about the piece. Dillard’s brilliant descriptions of a weasel’s jaw strength, her dazzled recounting of looking into its eyes. I’d forgotten everything but the title.
I don’t know anything about weasels. Before I read Dillard’s essay, I envisioned a weasel as squished. I pictured small rat-like mammals burrowed deep into the ground, living in a pile, squirming around one another in an attempt to go about their business.
This is not, however, the picture Dillard paints of the weasel. Dillard’s weasel is dignified and tenacious. It is principled. Propelled forward by instinct, it blankly knows what it wants—what it needs rather—and seizes it. As Dillard writes, “a weasel lives as he's meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.”
From ignorance my image of the weasel was born and to amnesia it returned. I forgot everything I learned from Dillard’s piece, until one day, I couldn’t get the title out of my mind and I gave the essay a second read.
“Living Like Weasels” is a piece for the beginning chapter of the 2020s. One would think that instincts are driven by self-preservation. But self-preservation shouldn't stop at the outer limits of one's own singular body. It should extend beyond, pushing us to preserve not just our own lives but also those of others in our species. If that were true, the past few years might have gone differently. We seem compelled to preserve the lives of those we care about, except when we don’t.
The weasel is singularly driven by instinct, not self-preservation. The image of the weasel painted by Dillard is a reactionary creature, relying on its instincts and frequently meeting a premature death as a result. Its instincts are off; there’s a glitch in the algorithm. Maybe we aren’t all too different from the weasel. Maybe the binary that Dillard constructs between choice and innate compulsion is inaccurate. But then again, maybe our instincts are just off.
Toella Pliakas is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her on Twitter @ToellaPliakas.
Annie Dillard (b. 1945) is an author best known for her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.