Tag Archives: squirrel

Who’s That Nut-Nut-Nut-ing at My Door?

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.

Disney moment

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.

tail

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.

1st 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.

offering

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random, Small & Great

Prelude to a Storm

For two days before the arrival of the hurricane called Sandy, it was unusually gray and overcast. Dense cloud cover, thick heaps (cumulus) resembling dryer lint, so much so that they made us land dwellers feel like the central portion of a sandwich. There was pressure in those log-jammed clouds, enough to have a physical presence rather than the usual visual one. Sometimes you could smell the salt in the air – and the ocean is 50 miles east of where I am standing. I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s  “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and also “The Wizard of Oz.”

Extreme weather can be exhilarating, in an adrenaline-pumping way. And it can be deadly. I remember seeing the tornado that destroyed Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, from a safe distance of about 50 miles. It crossed the horizon and looked to be about three inches high from my vantage point – but it was awesome at that size, swirling like a disturbed and desperate hornets‘ nest.

In June, 2010, I was driving across Ohio and through lower Michigan and witnessed several tornadoes crossing my path – eight were confirmed in the area. From my perspective, in a car, the sky went black in a diagonal line and I was pelted with hail. Pulling off the interstate was the only option. And there were moments, sitting in the flimsy metal car, when I saw distant trees almost double over. I can’t help but wonder about the other fellow creatures caught in the storm, the ones without weather channels.

The day hurricane Sandy was supposed to put its evil eye on our region, I felt an  urgency to rake leaves that had already fallen, before the rainfall. The wind was getting stronger, and there were pauses I was forced to take just to wait for the swirling to subside. I looked over, during one of these pauses, at my front porch and there was a squirrel lying flat on its stomach, legs out like a flying squirrel. His eyes were open and seemed to be watching me. Since my tendency is to speak to all animals, I explained that I wouldn’t bother him, I would not be cleaning off the porch just yet, and that he could rest there as long as he needed. I went on with my work.

About an hour or so later, after having worked my way around the other side of the corner, I revisited the porch. The squirrel had not moved. I spoke again, “Are you okay?” It wasn’t that I expected a reply, I just thought that, given normal circumstances, squirrels do not sit still and they do not stick around to listen to what you have to say. Oh, dear. I went into the house to seek out another opinion. My partner looked at the squirrel, unmoving, and noticed that he was not breathing.

A squirrel died on my porch that day, right before the hurricane hit. He was plump, rotund really, perfectly healthy looking, an unharmed animal who either fell out of one of my trees – but wait, he wouldn’t have fallen flat on his belly in a posture like I have seen squirrels assume while resting – or perhaps, he wasn’t feeling well and had a heart attack right there. Or, maybe, the impending storm caused untold stress that sent him over the edge. I felt incredibly sad. And I started to think about how you never see dead squirrels anywhere except on roadways. It was so puzzling that I looked it up on the Internet – why one never sees dead squirrels anywhere. Apparently, the reason is that they are eaten fairly quickly by other animals who find them before we do.

In addition to my sadness, I felt somehow honored that he chose my porch as his final resting place. Let me explain. When I moved into this hard-surfaced city neighborhood, I don’t recall that there were any squirrels within sight. I cut away concrete and planted street trees and, one day, the squirrels started to appear. Looking out our second floor window, there is a lovely horizontal limb that was a favorite spot for many generations of squirrels; bringing nuts or crusts of pizza up onto the branch and snacking, then lying prostrate on the branch for a quick squirrel nap. So I had seen them sleep.

I am happy to have provided habitat for these amazing and amusing creatures, since all around us their habitats are being obliterated. The fact that this chubby (perhaps it was the pizza) squirrel lived his life here, found placeness here and died – the long squirrel nap – here on my porch, makes me glimpse the circle of life and of nature, in the throes of a terrible storm. Maybe he felt safe on my porch, safe enough to die there. I never expected this to happen, and it had never happened before, but I come away feeling that, despite the sadness of this event, and aside from it being a portent of the looming storm, in the universe of the unexplained and the inexplicable, this fellow creature had come home to roost.

1 Comment

Filed under Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random, Small & Great

From Tiny Acorns

We live in a time of unadornment, and have for many years. New buildings are just boxes, with meager attempts at visual design, such as mirrored windows. For decades, stripped-down, modified Modernist-style has been king, and every industrial park, medical complex and suburban office aggregation is reminiscent – no, identical – to the one you passed just down the road: unfriendly to pedestrians, uncaring of environment, unaware of surroundings, unknowable because there is nothing there to know.

This is no new revelation: the lines of this battle and public assault were drawn long ago; it’s just amazing that the winds of fashion or time or human vagaries and fickleness haven’t blown sand over the old lines and led us to the making of new ones. Like many things now, this, too, is indicative of a slump. Controversial Postmodernism looked, for a while, as if it might enliven the cityscape – and the discussion – even if only in odd ways, but it soon was co-opted and subsumed, and now seems as just an eccentric interlude, a test-run of warped iconography and Chippendale toppings before its predestined use as the architecture of Las Vegas and Disney World.

Beyond the commercial building, the same one-note malaise infects the housing stock. Actually, here in our town, it’s two-note. Here, where the red-brick rowhouse is the lingua franca of house-building, there are, spreading like unimaginative but persistent bacteria, the three-story, bay-windowed, one-car-garaged, part stuccoed, part-bricked, part-stone-face, part-sided, lone dwarf-conifered structure that in the suburbs is called a townhome. In the city, where they are being built in profusion, three or four crammed into lots designed for one or two, the same blueprint used in ex-urban developments is being applied. They don’t fit, they don’t accommodate and they don’t age well. The term “cookie cutter” comes to mind; “boring,” too. Built fast, sold expensive, they are as much extruded as constructed, with lowest-grade materials slapped together by unlicensed, barely-skilled workers hired by fly-by-night, carpet-bagger, self-described “developers.” Exploitation aside, these organisms are – to all those who do not dwell inside them, admiring the granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances – characterless intruders.

The other form of new construction here is the modified Euro-style residential unit – informed by Bauhaus principles, sleek and rectilinear, with worker-housing lines and industrial materials, with a whiff of Scandinavian Utopian-community architecture about them. For a while, they were exciting additions to the neighborhoods: cool and stylish, imported and forward-looking. What wasn’t seen, looking forward, was how soon they would proliferate, and by the hands of fast-buck contractors looking to cash in on a trend, to the point where they have now become, if not ubiquitous, then monotonous, and without their original spark and surprise. What wasn’t seen, either – or what wasn’t cared about, even if seen – was that a mass of them, devised by recipe, would soon look like Soviet-era living spaces, or higher-aesthetic public housing – and which, like new cars rolling off dealers’ lots, look immediately dated, rapidly losing monetary and style-points value.

Odd that we tolerate sameness, save for color or flower-bed choice, with our homes, for it is not as if we are a creature with no interest in external adornment: we sculpt our hair, paint our faces, spend fortunes on clothing and jewelry, all to decorate ourselves, to define a more distinct, beautiful or striking or singular us. (Of course, this is a semi-fallacy, because we cut our hair in popular fashions, cosmeticize and accessorize ourselves to resemble the current hot luminary. We conform in our striving to show our difference, and those who are truly different are shunned or mocked.)

Still, we alter our outsides, even in rote ways – but, when it comes to our houses, all the adornment takes place behind the facades, in the rooms, where only residents can see them – unshared. Are we so estranged from our shelters that we do not see them as extensions of ourselves and, therefore, worthy of extended identity?

We were in New York City recently, and, with some time before our bus home, we strolled up and down the numbered streets, on the Upper East Side, in the 60s and 70s, crisscrossing the easternmost avenues. There are magnificent, real, venerable townhouses lining those streets, and while many are classic brownstones, they come in similar but varied styles and colors. And, every once in a while, we would encounter a house that had been modernized, or had been built new in recent decades where once an older house had been; they stood gleaming and brazen and out of context, attached yet detached – cool, flat statements of an architect. Still, among the houses of these streets, the adornments are primarily inside the homes, not out – you can spy the painting and mouldings, photos and weavings, through gaps in the curtained windows (except in the modernized homes, which have, for the most part, used metal or smoked glass to screen from view any errant peeping).

But what is missing, despite facade variations, despite the modernized materials, is personalization – the truly personal expression: a resonating link between the person inside the house and the house’s public face to the city, to the street, to the passerby, to the human-scale experience  – to the creation of placeness, a statement that is, intentionally or not, art.

So, soon, we nearly ceased to look at the places, each beginning to look like the next or, worse, feeling like the next, or the one across or up the street. And we ceased, too, to be stopped by or drawn to the newish kids on the block, each with a sameness in their often-strained difference.

It was just about then when we saw it. It was a grayish brownstone house, somewhat less regal or commanding or rich-looking than many of its neighbors. But it had a band of something, some design, stretched across its front, just above the first-floor entry door and windows. It seemed like something extra, but nothing special. We almost missed it. But we looked again and saw it: what that perhaps 18-inch-high strip of dark metal had punched out of it was a series of squirrel shapes – a long row of them, as if in a conga line. And, more, we then noticed that atop the newel posts flanking the front stoop were sculptures of, yes, squirrels.

Why? Who knows. But all of it was too expensive, too thought-out, too well-done an act to have been merely a whim. The metal band, the squirrel statues – these meant something to the people inside who designed them or paid for them to be designed and installed. Was it a tribute to the city’s second-most widespread wildlife form in the city? (Perhaps somewhere, maybe in Greenwich Village, there was a similar homage to the pigeon?) Was it a play on someone’s name? Or was it just a work of subtle, friendly, individualistic, idiosyncratic art, symbolic of something or nothing, fashioned to catch the eye of people walking by, and make them stop, and smile, and wonder? We don’t know. And, frankly, we don’t care. It broke up the monotony, it brightened our day, it personalized a city that can drub the spirit of anyone. It was, in its way, a buried acorn, happily discovered when needed.

And we were reminded of the sentiments at the end of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; that is, if one person does such a thing, they might be considered odd, but if more did it, it could be seen as an organization, and even a movement. Think of it: a movement to break down the divide between dwelling and dweller, and between them and the public at large. A movement to take back design, or alter it, to truly personalize the little shelters we call home. To make the concept of placeness, or arslocii, an operating concept in all our lives. To find our inner squirrel.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Art & Architecture, Musings, Small & Great