the squirrel, in the tree
We have a gorgeous, enormous black walnut tree in our backyard which has many fans, particularly the human and furry types. It’s not so much a bird tree as a squirrel tree, and I’m particularly enamored of watching squirrels, so that’s fine with me.
Over the past few months, we’ve recognized the formation of a relationship with the critters, or at least one of them. The squirrel in question will sometimes sit and watch us chatter to each other outside, will stop and look at me as I leave the house, rather than immediately escaping to safety, will often pause when I say good morning to it. It has even cautiously descended the trunk a bit when V is clearly outside to, as far as we can tell, get her to chase it back up. We see one or two squirrels pretty regularly, but never more than that, so we’ve decided that they must be residing in 2 of the 3 or 4 nests nestled in the large branches. Sometimes we listen to them chattering to each other across the tree. We’re so into them, and the one in particular, that we, just last night, shared the story of our extended family with some friends (who were not all that into it; fair enough: we’re odd). This is our household: 2 humans, one dog, two squirrels, a network of outdoor spiders, the bunny babies that the shitty rabbit mother abandons to us to protect 3 or 4 times a year, and the occasional chipmunk or mouse, welcome in the yard only, though there is sometimes disagreement on that.
And then, this morning, B came up to the office after I thought he’d left for work and tearfully told me that one of our squirrels had died. It didn’t show any signs of attack; he just found it on the ground by the tree. And then I remembered – the nest of dried leaves piled on a chair and the grass next to it. I’d seen it after I walked V earlier, and innocently assumed it was a nest that had fallen into desuetude – it couldn’t possibly belong to one of Ours.
I felt crappy for the next few hours. Not for the squirrel – I can no longer believe that death is bad for the dead – but for us, and for the squirrel friend we imagine it left behind. I had been worried that our buddies might not have enough food for the winter because our tree decided not to fruit this year, likely due to the drought, and wondered if we should donate some nuts…. And now – one less squirrel to worry about. It’s been a while since I felt a loss. But when I finally left the house this afternoon, a squirrel ran all the way across the yard to scatter up the tree next to me, pausing when I said hello. And when I returned from my errands, it stopped and looked at me before heading out on its own. And just now, when I came out to write this, it ran up the tree trunk again, pausing at the fork and checking out V & me.
Maybe it’s the more social squirrel that survived, which would be nice, but still sad. Maybe it’s looking for its friend. Maybe it is trying, in some knowing, unknowable way, to let me know it’s still here. (There it is now, climbing to another resting spot.) Whatever the magical or materialist reality, it has certainly made itself known today as squirrel. That Squirrel still lives. That there is Squirrel and there will be Squirrel. And whatever squirrel loss we have endured, Squirrel survives; long after we and V and even the tree are gone. I’m grateful for that illumination.
I’ve been thinking a lot about anthropomorphism lately: the arrogance of attributing human attributes to plants and animals, and the arrogance of assuming we know their limitations. I’ll dig into that sometime soon. This is just a squirrel story.