Each weekend, as my little terrier, Pip, and I board the Jitney, I am already the inhaling peace—a delicious two days of it awaiting me in Water Mill. As an English professor, I will have a few hours to spend grading essays, but…ahhh, the rest will be writing-time! All those quiet hours of drawing inspiration from the unspoiled patch of wooded land we have guarded around our little “tree house.” I will once again be that the great lover of nature and silence, searching my soul and turning out prose exalting the beauty of our natural setting. When the Jitney turns off at Exit 70, I’m no longer the frazzled urbanite, but I am a nature-loving disciple of Henry David Thoreau.
I have always adored the company of the animals, until one particular member of nature’s menagerie came along. I had had a Thoreau mind-set, and suddenly it was more along the lines of Edgar Allen Poe. And, with a relish that almost frightens me about myself, I began to imagine the most twisted, hideous of fates for this abdominal creature.
Allow me to explain: I am normally an animal-lover. I put out scraps for the deer, I’ve helped innumerable wild animals, including spiders. When one of those enormous black ones is clinging to the wall above the bed, looking down at me and wondering whether it would be fun to crawl on my face while I’m sleeping, I still cringe, but then I grab a paper towel and escort them to their new home out in the yard. When there were raccoons raising a family in the crawl space of our roof, I had them humanely trapped. Hopefully, they are holding their nocturnal family reunions somewhere in Ontario.
But then, last year, along came Mr. Squirrel.
I sat down to work on my latest novel, a love story, and there he was staring at me through the second-floor deck window. Pip went crazy, barking non-stop. I turned to a lesson plan, but instead of seeing Shakespeare in my anthology, my mind would be reading: Squirrel, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
This became a regular problem. When Mr. Squirrel appeared, I would put Pip in the yard. Okay, Mr. Squirrel, Pip can think of nothing but killing you, which I wish he would. Pip would crouch under whichever tree the squirrel was in, making those chirrupy noises. I tried putting Pip downstairs in the bedroom, closing the blinds, and turning on the air conditioner, the dehumidifier, the white noise machine. He still sensed the squirrel. I put the dog upstairs, and went into the noise chamber myself. I might as well have been back in New York.
Curses on you, Mr. Squirrel! You bury acorns in my yard. You leave acorn halves all over the deck and in the barbecue. You chomp the blossoms off my flowers and my plum tomatoes. If I leave out bread for the birds, it’s you who I find brazenly sitting, your fat, porcupiney tail flickering, looking at me with that demonic beady black eye, holding the toast in your disgusting wormy paws. You wake me up in the morning crawling on the side of the house, and you leave claw marks on the cedar siding.
I got the number of a pest control company. But late last fall, I thought—wait! Winter is coming. Don’t they hibernate?
But come December, hibernate he did not. In January, I considered making that call. But, finger poised above the phone, I noticed a snow flake. And another. And then millions of them. Ha! He’d be stuck up in that tree.
Next morning, I woke up to the dog’s barking and, guess what, the pitter patter of little feet. Nor did he disappear the next month. You remember last January, when Antarctica was starting to look good? If anything, he found the hellish cold enervating, running across the deck, driving Pip into a frenzy, checking me out with that little beady eye, and then flipping me off with his miserable excuse of scraggly tail. I’d be in mid-sentence, and he’d take a leisurely stroll across the deck; I’d run hurl open the sliding door and, over Pip’s barking, yell and throw his discarded acorn shells at him. I’d let the dog sit on the deck and make a surprise attack. But the deck railing is four feet high, and the dog is not quite a foot high. Pip would bark incessantly as the squirrel sat lizard-like on his way up a tree trunk. Next thing, I’d see him leaping from tree to tree; Tarzan of the squirrels.
It was so cold that even my South Dakota winter-loving soul almost found unbelievable. Any day now, I would plan a celebration to mark the exit of that rotten little vermin from my life. Ha! The one good thing to come out of this winter.
It went down to 4 degrees. My deck a frozen wonder, the squirrel would come skating across it. And then, during my winter break from the college in February, it got cold again, colder than anyone thought it was possible to get. My yard was a frozen dessert of alternating layers of ice and snow. I wondered how anything could survive. Just taking the dog out for a minute required fifteen minutes of finding dry socks and boots, a scarf for my face, a hat, a coat, the dog’s coat. That was the end of squirrel, I was sure.
But there’s something that below-zero wind chill does to you. You begin to live in the moment, to feel the loneliness and precariousness of existence. You truly begin to understand nature, to contemplate her ability to be utterly beautiful land utterly cruel. And on the afternoon of a day when the wind whistled and blew snow fine as dust, I looked out and saw Mr. Squirrel through the thin layer of ice on the window. He was sitting on the ledge of the deck, looking at me sideways with that eye. At that moment, the below-zero must have frozen my brain. Why was he still alive? If he hadn’t frozen to death, wouldn’t he have starved?
Something happened to me. I suddenly felt as if the squirrel, the dog and I were the last creatures left on earth. I even admired him. He was a survivor.
I went to the kitchen and found a bag of peanuts in the cupboard. I opened the deck and tossed them onto the hardened, unforgiving snow. I’ve never forgotten that moment of compassion. It taught me that the irritants in life are one thing, but a starving living creature, the only thing to do is to share your food. Even if you hate him.
That is not the end of the story, though. More storms and unrelenting cold kept my deck filled with about three feet of snow so icy that my shovel couldn’t penetrate, until late March. I worried about the deck collapsing. I finally got about half the snow out—I figure I shoveled two tons of it. I came out from the city two weeks later, and the ice was dripping. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was an enormous board out of the front panel of the deck, and a mishmash of pine branches and oak leaves sticking from it. I had my suspicions, and went upstairs to get a look. I leaned over the deck to look in, and there was the squirrel’s conical little face peering up at me, asking, “Please don’t hurt me.” And two little naked pink bodies next to–not Mr. Squirrel, but Ms. Squirrel. She was also giving me a look of “please, dear friend, don’t hurt my babies.”
A neighbor said just have it boarded up. I couldn’t’ do that. But my dog took care of the situation. When I let him out, he barked so much that we found the next empty two days later. She had relocated to a nest in our highest red oak tree. I found the board that had fallen out and nailed it back up.
We made a deal that day that I fed her in the middle of the desolation, and the day I let her stay temporarily in my deck she’d chewed up. Property damage is a bad thing, but damage to another living creature just for your own convenience is not; I would leave her alone. But she also learned that if she kept her distance, and didn’t run across my deck, I could get my writing done, the dog wouldn’t bark at her, and I wouldn’t swear and throw acorns at her.
You work it out with animals, the same way they teach you to work things out when you’re in grammar school and someone is trying to play with the blocks you have. You share.