Tuesday, November 25, 2008

on squirrels and mortality

I have knowingly had direct involvement in the deaths of two squirrels. “Knowingly” is not the same as “intentionally,” but “direct involvement in the deaths of” is the same as “killed.” The first time was a blur, just sudden road-kill in my rearview mirror. I remember telling a class about it that day, and thereafter I was routinely called squirrel-killer.

That is many years past. A few months ago it happened again. I drove down a hill and hit the brakes as one darted in front of me, then I slowed again for a second, managing to avoid each (or vice-versa). I came to a complete stop when a third one ran out, but not before hearing a thud. For days I was angry at the squirrel for having put me in a position of having to kill him.

More recently I woke up in the middle of the night and listened to an anguished squeal. I knew something outside was hurting, but couldn’t tell what it was. When it stopped I heard an owl hoot while a squirrel chirped in defiance. While the evidence is limited, the image I formed was similar to the Mexican flag, except instead of an eagle and a snake it was an owl taking off with a squirrel. (In my version of the flag, the squirrel would be grasping one of my tomato plants.)

This last weekend I walked toward the edge of my yard where there is a sudden drop of about 40 feet. A squirrel fell from a tree in front of me. I chuckled at first at its apparent spasticity, but stopped when I got close to the edge and could see the ground. It looked as if the squirrel had impaled itself on a fallen branch. All I could see was a lifeless furry lump with a large bloody gash. I would have needed a closer look to know with certainty what happened, but there are limits to my curiosity.

So I find myself wondering why a shameless carnivore, one who has experienced much of the nuisance these creatures can provide a homeowner, would react with such visceral lament to their deaths. Well, I suppose they can be cute and entertaining, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think it illustrates how everyone and everything is perched at the edge of a flimsy branch and we don’t know what’s down there. We all have to cross some thoroughfare sooner or later, but the oncoming traffic doesn’t care where we need to get to.

Last winter I saw a nest slide through some branches and land on the ground, then saw a squirrel scamper off with what I assumed to be a baby bird. It was horrifying to think that my backyard had spawned some new race of hunter squirrels. When it returned for another, I ran to chastise it for its betrayal of its own instincts, but saw that it wasn’t a bird in its mouth, it was a baby squirrel being carried away to a new nest. So this is the slightly happy ending to my squirrel meditation: we’ll never run out of squirrels, no matter how often or with what creativity they abuse themselves.

1 comment:

jblack designs said...

wow Phil. You should write pieces like this more often. Which is not the same as saying you should watch more squirrels meet an unseemly ending.

But I can't imagine you chuckling...