An Ode to Squirrels

What animal lives closer to us than you do?

Drawing on bright green background of top of person's head with acorn bouncing off
Tim Lahan

Why are you squawking at me, little messenger?

Why are you up in that tree, clenched, flicking your tail in a fury and showering me with imprecations? What have I done to upset you?

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Well, I think I know. You’re vexed by my dullness. You see me lumping along the sidewalk, a blockish biped, with five sleepy senses and a private Truman Show rain cloud over my head, and my insensibility outrages you. I’m getting about 2 percent of what’s going on. So you yell at me, in croaks and leathery quacks: Wake up!

Not that I’d want what you’ve got. Being a squirrel, having squirrel-ness, is an intense condition, a demanding condition, closely resembling the last scatty spirals of a drug binge. I’ve seen you doing your pouncing runs and your sudden stops. Threats, it seems, are everywhere. You rush, you rush, and then you freeze—you wait, breathless—and the whole scene around you sort of wobbles, caught in the blast radius of your vigilance. Then you rush again. It’s exhausting.

Who lives closer to us, in the city, than you do? The pigeon is of the air, and the rat hides underground. But you are everywhere, sharing our daylight spaces, your consciousness perforating ours. And just because you’re paranoid, tiny gargoyle, doesn’t mean that they’re not after you. From time to time I find you dead, super-dead, extravagantly terminated: flattened or charred or sliced in half. My dog is a threat, a real one. He’d kill you if he could. But he never can. You evade him always, corkscrewing around a tree trunk or dancing ninjalike along a fence. His reality is sharper than mine, and yours is sharper than his.

This is why I appreciate you, squirrel—why I peer into trees and scan the rubbishy park for your pinched little unblinking face. I love the wildness with which you accompany my unwildness, the many spikes of terror and gratification that pierce your soul while I’m wondering if I left the car unlocked.

Is it my world, or is it yours? Is this a quiet, gray street, my street, or the set of a feral opera? There you go, tree-leaping again, off on some desperate journey. The branches nod gravely as you race across them.

This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “Ode to Squirrels.”