Like a small grey coffee-pot
Sits the squirrel. He is not
All he should be, kills by dozens
Trees, and eats his red brown cousins.
The keeper, on the other hand
Who shot him, is a Christian, and
Loves his enemies, which shows
The squirrel was not one of those.
--"The Grey Squirrel," Humbert Wolfe
What is daintier than a squirrel, especially a squirrel in profile? They have such sleek, finely shaped heads and alert eyes, and they hang from their toes with the greatest of ease. They exhibit some of that power of being physically comfortable most notoriously possessed by cats, but where cats are generally at their most comfortable lying down (I knew a cat once who achieved pure relaxation sleeping on a pile of wire coat hangers) squirrels seem most comfortable while in motion. I wonder what it's like to be a squirrel, and to have a brain that equips you to leap from branch to branch with no interruption, to dart and sway and dangle and change course in midair, a furry bullet of pure physical expression. What does that feel like? Do they give it conscious thought, or are they just little grasping computers who do their thing in a mindless trance? If the latter, does it feel anything like the mindless trance humans sometimes experience when they're really, really good at something? (Keeping in mind the possibility that no human being has ever been as good at anything as any given squirrel is at climbing trees.)
I'm thinking of these things because yesterday I went to feed the squirrels. I think there are two species in the park near my house: the more numerous of the two is typically gray and bushy-tailed, and the other is slightly smaller, with reddish fur, somewhat foxier ears, and a slimmer tail. Within minutes of my arrival I was surrounded by eight or ten of them, and it occurred to me that if they worked together they could pretty much kick my ass. They would just have had to go for my neck, and it would have been all over. But this is not the squirrel's way. It is the squirrel's way to approach and retreat, approach and retreat, coming a little closer each time, until it has worked up the courage to snatch a nut from your fingers. While it is thinking about doing this it will often whisk its tail about furiously, almost like a propeller.
I am told that a squirrel with a nut is a tombstone motif that indicates religious contemplation (the squirrel puzzling over how to get at the nutmeat, I guess, though the metaphor breaks down there because nuts don't give squirrels nearly as much trouble as religion gives people). In heraldry a squirrel indicates a lover of the woods, and stitched into a sampler it is a symbol of mischief. In Norse mythology the squirrel is the messenger Ratatosk, which is appropriate when you consider that the Norse conceived of the universe as a tree: Ratatosk scampers up and down Yggdrasil, the world-tree, carrying bad news between the dragon below and the eagle above. And the legendary Irish queen Medb, noted for her fierceness in combat and her insatiable sexual appetite, carries a raven on one shoulder and a squirrel (togmall) on the other. Rock on, squirrels.
As I fed the squirrels that cat returned, the lean black stray with white feet that I had seen the day I released the chick. It made a lackluster attempt to catch one of the squirrels before padding over to me. I sat on one side of the wire fence feeding squirrels, and the cat lay on the other side, calm as you please, watching me. I wanted to bring some food to it, too, but it seemed inconsistent with my vegetarian philosophy to feed a cat food made from factory-farmed animals -- and cats, unlike people or dogs, need to eat meat to be healthy. Maybe I can bring it some hippie free-range cat food or something. Fucking cycle of life.