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Monday, July 26, 2010

In Praise of Squirrel Literacy

“Squirrels nest in trees?—No way. I thought they lived in stone walls or in holes in the ground like chipmunks,” protested a friend in her early 40s. A similar response from a second friend suggested a pattern. (Both, of course, were referring not to short-tailed ground squirrels but to the ubiquitous grey squirrel that has adapted so successfully in our midst.)

Both of my friends are graduates of fine colleges, but, remarkably, both have lived nearly their entire lives—nearly 95 years combined—in rural Hatfield, Massachusetts. Unlike neighboring Northampton and Amherst—both multicultural hotbeds—Hatfield—with its predominance of Polish, Irish, and Anglo-American descendents, is as ethnically homogeneous as the milk from its Holsteins. If I moved to Hatfield and its several Jewish families fled, I would be the town Jew. This year’s high school graduating class of about 40 sported one African American—a school-choice nonresident [Was she pushed or did she jump?]

Squirrel Literacy Now! If my two soon-to-be former friends from the sticks are so profoundly squirrel-challenged, what about the rest of us from places on the map that don’t involve squinting? A recent New York Times article by science writer Natalie Angier makes a splendid case for squirrel literacy and the squirrel’s—especially the grey squirrel’s—extraordinary adaptive fitness. According to Angier, they can leap 10 times their body length, and rotate their ankles 180 degrees, which allows them to grip with the tenaciousness of a reverse mortgage salesman at a senior center. Those assets combined with double-jointed hind legs allow squirrels to accelerate and change direction on a dime. If they played football, they’d be finesse backs, split ends, safeties.

The surprisingly sophisticated squirrel brain allows for tactical deception. They’ll bury a nut/seed, dig it up, and rebury it, over and over again. If they suspect they’re being watched, they’ll fake the interment and move on to safer ground. Confession is good for the soul. As a five-year-old, I watched a squirrel bury an acorn from my backyard window. When the critter vanished, I retrieved the nut and jiggered the burial site to appear untampered. Then, at my back window, I observed the creature dig in frustration. In retrospect, I’m not proud of my behavior then and, for that matter, of my unkind words above directed at the good people of Hatfield. But for me, impulse control has no pride.

Squirrels are also “master” kvetchers, emphasizes Ms. Angier. Their repertoire of chucks and kuks runs the gamut of negativity from mild discomfort to the prospect of neighborhood-wide bedlam.

A Tale about a Tail. Without question, the squirrel’s lightening reflexes, its loquaciousness, and its juiced-up metabolism give you one furry jive artist. That was much of the charm in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, an account of escalating squirrel chutzpah in the face of peril—the taciturn, lethal owl, Old Brown. During the six-day adventure, Nutkin’s siblings and cousins paid Old Brown tribute in mice, moles minnows, and fat beetles, the latter which Potter insisted were as good as plums in plum pudding for Old Brown. Nutkin, on the other hand, offered annoying riddles and escalating impertinence, which culminated on the sixth day:

Nutkin made a whirring noise to sound like the wind, and he took a running jump right onto the head of Old Brown!...Then all at once there was a flutterment and a scufflement and a loud "Squeak!" The other squirrels scuttered away into the bushes. When they came back very cautiously, peeping round the tree—there was Old Brown sitting on his door-step, quite still, with his eyes closed, as if nothing had happened. But Nutkin was in his waistcoat pocket!
This looks like the end of the story; but it isn't.Old Brown carried Nutkin into his house, and held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window.And to this day, if you meet Nutkin up a tree and ask him a riddle, he will throw sticks at you, and stamp his feet and scold, and shout—"Cuck-cuck-cuck-cur-r-r-cuck-k-k!"

A Jive Artist Supreme!


Mary E.Carey said...

Love the squirrel photo and illustration!

Lisa van der Pool said...

Love the post - especially since in my new Cambridge apartment I have a gray squirrel who hangs out on my porch and seems to think he's my pet. I've always loved Squirrel Nutkin too.