Saturday, December 17, 2011


Gray squirrel taken through a glass darkly.
You’d think that they’d have eaten their fill, their bushy tails shaking in the fork of the gray oak in my backyard as they peel acorns and toss their shells onto the patio, feasting on the bitter meat that fuels their acrobatics. No wonder they leap about and run as if their tails were on fire–the tannin they consume is as strong as the over-steeped tea that my Iranian houseboy, Jabar, once served me. It was a brew so potent that after I had downed two cups of the dark liquid, I’d see swirling spots before me and would feel as though I was poised to levitate. Perhaps the meat of the acorns helps these creatures to levitate? And how do they keep their white fronts so pristine as they gnaw and grind nuts without dribbling a crumb, their thoughts focused on “eating is all” … that is, except in winter when mating begins and they’re distracted from eating by engaging in the chase! Then they put on an acrobatic show to rival Cirque du Soleil, making these strange chirping noises which can be translated as laughter…or alarm…and sometimes communicating with tail gestures that could only be interpreted as flirting!

No matter how many times I view them in the newly-trimmed live oak outside my window, they remind me of how difficult it must have been for our ancestors to forage for food. I’m writing about squirrels, one of the largest families of mammals in the world, pesky, pesty squirrels that are oblivious to watchers observing them on a day filled with dull clouds, threatening rain. (As I’ve written before, Louisiana’s weather can be described as “always threatening,” but the squirrels seem unperturbed about the darkening sky). They’ve been around for forty million years, and I’ve read that they can survive in any climate except that of the polar region. They don’t have any difficulty surviving in Louisiana climes, and I don’t mind playing hostess to them, but I do wish they’d become as fond of the mosquitoes swarming outside as they are of the acorns that drop on the patio floor. Although they leave a mess of broken shells on the painted red floor, they’re reputed to be the cleanest animal in the rodent family–so why don’t they clean up their rooms? Or become nocturnal instead of diurnal so that I don’t have to watch them litter?

Would that I had the artistic ability of Beatrix Potter so that I could better relate the antics of my resident rodents. Potter immortalized this creature in her story about Squirrel Nutkin, a red squirrel who narrowly escaped the claws of an owl called Old Brown. This beautifully-illustrated children’s book was published in 1903 by Frederick Warne and Company. The tale concerns Squirrel Nutkin, his brother Twinkleberry, and their cousins who sail to Owl Island on small rafts they’ve made of twigs. They get permission from Old Brown to collect nuts on his island, but Nutkin taunts the owl with foolish riddles for six days until he causes Old Brown to become enraged, and the owl attempts to skin Nutkin alive. Nutkin escapes, but he loses most of his tail during the confrontation.

Potter sketched squirrels near the landscape around Lingholm and St. Herbert’s Island in the UK, naming the locale Owl’s Island in her book. She also built a squirrel house of a soapbox so she could observe the animal while she sketched at home, and visited London Zoological Gardens to sketch the owls at that location. Critics wrote that Potter achieved excellent natural history writing in Squirrel Nutkin, even to the point of depicting violence in the natural world, and the book became an immediate best seller–actually, it became an all-time seller as copies of this classic are still selling throughout the world.

Well, I don’t intend to skin my resident squirrels or clip their bushy tails, but I have threatened to cut down the oak if they don’t stop littering acorn shells. And as I write this, one of my rodent friends looks up from his lunch of acorns, regards me with his large shoe button eyes, and flips his tail in defiance, chirping some kind of ancient riddle in a language only Beatrix Potter would understand.
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