This morning I watched a squirrel, sleek and plump. The squirrel and I are at eye level. We are each intent upon breakfast: I, dallying safe in my warm kitchen in our inverted home built from bricks and glass, cocooned and disconnected from what it really means to be in the throes of life, and he, moving freely in a habitat more suited to his wild and precious nature where every sight, sound and smell weaves a story in his brain about how to survive. He is intent on his task and seemingly oblivious to my silent presence, tidied away behind the glass and safely distanced from those sensory signals that shout ‘danger’.
Around him – or her, but surely not “it” – the rain and the wind compete against each other, raging loud and long. The wind is winning; the rain is tossed and thrown about helpless, in thrall to the wild eddies and whirling currents. It is particularly strong today, the wind, but coming from the south-west, which affords us some protection, nestled as we are under the lip of a north-facing valley slope. The squirrel seems inured to the elements. The squirrel – wise squirrel – has chosen well this morning. The steep bank immediately at the back of our house is perhaps the most protected site available for her repast. And in making her choice, the squirrel – generous squirrel – has granted me the opportunity to join her at her table.
She scrabbles with her delicate paws in the damp, root-ridden earth which covers the slate which comprises the bank. Her movements are fleet and purposeful; just a few moments scritching and scratching and she has unearthed her first course, deposited there perhaps when autumn was vivid and abundant and winter no more than a dark and frosty whisper in the dawn.
A shimmy up a slender sapling situated immediately in front of my window and she settles into a fork in the fledgling branches, transfers her bounty from her jaws to her paws and gnaws fast and furious. Her mouth moves with speed and economy. I watch as the paws – surely as dextrous and delicate as human hands, so perfectly matched as they are to their purpose – skilfully turn the morsel (perhaps half an acorn?) at a pace perfectly attuned to the fast-working teeth. Several rotations and paws are empty, stomach a little fuller. Down the trunk we go.
So sheltered is this spot that the sapling, supple though it is, scarcely sways in the face of the gale. The squirrel returns to her stash; exhumes another titbit and as each site is emptied, moves to another and another, always finding treasure at every spot in which she scrabbles, memory never failing. Each time, the unearthed delicacy is carried up the smooth grey bark of the young tree to that same fork, perfectly level with my gaze. I am enchanted.
Later, I recall that last summer I had mentally marked this sapling to be removed. Its position on this steep bank is ill-suited. Ill-suited to what? For now I know better. Who am I to disturb this eye-level restaurant? The sapling will stand another summer at least. And hopefully the squirrel and I will share another silent meeting before the leaves once again clothe the tree and the bank once again is swathed in summer secrecy.
It’s been a long while since I opened this dusty and neglected ‘Corner’, a space which has frequently been the repository for those moments when time and life step aside and reflection and creativity creep to the fore. But her recent passing caused me to listen just yesterday, to a rare and engrossing interview with the late Mary Oliver. And that in turn, made it easy, on this mild and wild February day to answer the question she so famously posed and which underpins a lot of what I believe this blog to be about:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
“Today, a squirrel and I shared breakfast.”