Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Language of Squirrels

Douglas Squirrel Lake Forest CAThe Squirrel Grove was musty and muddy, with stout low branches I had to duck under. The clearing in its midst was rimmed by glistening fern and Usnea and drenched in dismal light like Dracula's patio. Yet it was proof to the rain, and so a good place for camp. Here and there burned the soft ember of a jungleberry blossom, or the bright torch of a trillium. And everywhere the scrabbling of Douglas squirrels (Tamiasciurus douglasii); industrious little bureaucrats who never stopped shuffling their affairs, except to make war on others doing likewise.

They were surprisingly intelligent – wide, encircled black eyes shining below elfin ears – and seemingly exempt from the law of gravity, equally at home head up or down on the trunk; on a branch or under it. Seeing them skip from treetop to treetop reminded me how ponderous I was. They seemed hardly to touch the ground when they bounded along it; and while I held correct posture on the cushion, they bounced cone spindles off the Tyvek.

How long had they been here? Had their forebears dwelt in the primordial old growth forest? How much country does a Douglas squirrel's family tree span? The Squirrel Grove bloodline might have inhabited the Acres since the last ice age. Or maybe their territory creeps, a hundred feet, two hundred, each generation pressured by those already established, until the fiftieth is born a mile from the first. Or do rare individuals take the road, to wander far from their birthplace and breed in places as distant to their kind as death?

Stories never told.

If I could speak the language of squirrels, I might have found that their collective memory out-fathomed the mountain itself. I might have learned that these vocal little creatures, whose lifetime barely spans a decade, had been handing off this land, parent to child, since before humans came here.

Of course, if I were that man, I'd also have a pushmi-pullyu.

However long they'd been there, my little neighbours soon grew blasé to my presence. Soon I could stand within touching distance when they sat on low branches, bottlebrush tail erect, stripping the scales off spruce cones. Which they did all day, only leaving off to chase each other with vociferous curses. Once a pair of them pushed a pitched battle right up to my knee, rolling along the ground in a single chomping ball, screaming blue murder. In their bloodlust they completely ignored me, and for an instant I feared they might burst apart and go clawing around and around me in a rusty blur, like they did the spruces.

They paid fortunes on defence, those little Dougs. Interestingly, they also opened themselves to danger, for had I been less charitable, or more hungry, I'd've had two of them for dinner that day.

Proof of our origins is all around.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of Tamiasciurus douglasii courtesy of Len Blumin and Wikimedia Commons.)
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