I like to think that I can communicate with non-human animals. I don’t eat them, and maybe that gives me an edge, since they can smell it on us. Or, maybe I am just open to other creatures, so it happens. Yes, I have opposable thumbs – big deal – I don’t think that is the only meaningful attribute in the universe.
Many years ago, we were living in Allentown, Pa., in the upper two floors of an old Victorian twin. The house sat at the top of a big hill with amazing views west, a precarious and exciting spot for watching thunderstorms roll in. The yard swept steeply downhill and, because of its pitch, stayed as a rather wild area. There were many small animals that made their homes on that hillside. I watched their daily patterns as they grazed about in the late afternoon: rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks and birds. There were times when I witnessed bunnies playing leapfrog in the grass, just as frolic-y and fun-loving as squirrels. I would sometimes sit in the yard and watch them as if it were a scheduled performance, one I would have gladly paid to see.
So on one of those occasions, as I was sitting in the grass, the entire community of small mammals showed up simultaneously, whereas usually their timing was as separate acts, with a bit of overlap. My partner was coming up the path alongside the house, and stopped. It was like a Disney moment, with me and these other wild creatures all going about our business in perfect harmony. A peaceable kingdom, indeed. The bunnies were perhaps a couple of feet away from me, and the whole cast of characters surrounded me, as if I were a tree in their landscape. I talked softly to them. This went on for minutes and we shared a moment. Arslocii.
I have always talked to animals; at a zoo, where a pacing wild cat would suddenly start purring and pressing its flank against the bars; to squirrels, many times admonishing them to stay out of harm’s way. In March, I was working in my community garden plot and was visited by a robin who, of course, was excited by the digging. I started talking to this robin, and when a huge worm would surface I would toss it over to Robin (let’s call him/her that). Every day after that, Robin would show up and serenade me, or call to me from a tree; then, upon hearing my voice, would hop over to greet me. My partner was digging in the plot one day and Robin showed up. After hearing the wrong voice, Robin flew away.
I am an appreciator of squirrels, despite the fact that so many people see them as pests. We have a small courtyard that is an oasis, if not an animal refuge, in a hard-surfaced city neighborhood. Squirrels come into our courtyard every day, sometimes to bury things, since we have one of the few breaks in the pervasive cement. One squirrel likes to eat the samaras on our paperbark maple tree. I don’t mind as long as the smaller branches don’t break, although they often do. To ameliorate the damage, I started setting out small fistfuls of peanuts in the shell. Since there is more than one squirrel, I am learning a lot about their differences. There is a huge chubby one that sits in the pile and scarfs down the nuts, scattering empty, broken shells every which way. There is a slimmer one who systematically buries all the nuts, maybe eating one or two, but leaving no trace that there ever were peanuts.
I don’t put out nuts every day, maybe every few days. They all get taken, but I can tell who got them by what is left or not left behind. I have witnessed, lately, that if the fat guy got the nuts, the thin guy gets angry and kind of acts out, running around the courtyard and digging up some of the stored booty. I have talked to this particular squirrel and explained that there is more to come, just be patient.
Yesterday, the overfed one’s thievery must have happened again because the thin squirrel was excavating previously stashed nuts. And, surprisingly, a few shells were left on my steps. But the peculiar thing was that, sitting in an empty plant tray on a low wall, there was a single peanut still in its shell and with telltale dirt marks from its burial. Mind you, I always pile the nuts far from the stairs and door, to give a sense of safety to the hungry diner. Was this squirrel telling me something, making an offering, or asking for more? This had never happened before. It was a sign.
This morning, while I am sitting at the kitchen table next to the partially open window that separates the kitchen from the courtyard, I hear a strange chirping sound. It is unfamiliar but insistent. I look out – and there is the thin squirrel looking straight at me through the door, and the chirping is emanating from the squirrel. It is a request, I understand. More nuts, please, sir. (And, so, more nuts were given.)
An interspecies communication, a breaking down of barriers, a placeness. It is a wonderful thing. And right in my own backyard.