It’s probably an omen when a new year begins with the witnessing of something we’d never experienced before.
We’re working today, and as we sit at the Front Desk looking out of the great glass lobby of the building, out onto the wooded campus on this overcast, snow-covered day, we can see the squirrels scampering through the decorative cherry trees right outside the front entrance. Though stripped of their leaves, the trees are not without remnants of the tiny fruit that was so abundant last fall. Inedible for humans, the squirrels seem to love them, and go out onto the most precarious branches in order to reach them. All of the easy-to-reach ones have long since been plucked, so that by mid-winter the acrobatics necessary in order to obtain one of these dried-up little morsels is worthy of The Flying Wallendas.
Of course, squirrels have forgotten more about arboreal acrobatics than has managed to trickle down to humans from our tree-dwelling ancestors over the ensuing millenia. And even when they make a breathtaking misstep, they manage to recover with a flair and a sense of derring-do that makes it all look as though it had been choreographed and rehearsed well in advance.
Now, we’ve been exposed to squirrels our entire life. And since we moved to the city nearly 40 years ago, we’ve probably seen more individual squirrels than we have any other form of wildlife, apart from birds and insects. Hell, for five of those years, we even lived in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, and there is no question in our mind that that neighborhood is as aptly named as any in Pittsburgh. These are mostly common grey squirrels, although the occasional black squirrel will put in an appearance. We have a black squirrel that apparently lives close by, because he (or perhaps, she) shows up regularly in our back yard, often climbing up the back steps to taunt our cat, who can be found on the opposite side of the glass door going ballistic every time he comes around.
We’ve read that, unlike red squirrels, black squirrels and grey squirrels are of the same species, and that the black coloration is simply the rare expression of a gene that is usually recessive. It’s been our experience, though, that black squirrels tend to be a bit smaller then their grey brethren. We’ve never read anything to support this, and it may well be just coincidence that those we’ve seen have always been smaller. But we’ve seen a number of them, and they have always been smaller, so it could be that we’ve hit onto something that isn’t written up in the squirrel’s taxonomy, at least any that we’ve come across.
That seems unlikely.
The grey squirrels here at this suburban industrial campus, however, live in the woods along with all of the other wildlife (the 181-acre wooded campus is also a wildlife sanctuary), and so these are robust animals, a bit larger even than the city squirrels to which we are accustomed. They’re more feral, too, and unlike their city cousins, they keep humans at a respectable distance.
But they seem to understand the concept of glass, and so even though we’re only within a couple of feet of them here in the lobby, they appear to know that they would have plenty of time to make a break for it if we should decide to come after them. The numerous deer, turkey, raccoons, and even skunks that live here seem to appreciate the safety that glass affords as well, and often browse right up at the front of the building, only to look up casually and unconcerned when they see us walking across the lobby as we leave to go on one of our hourly rounds. If they should hear the telltale “beep” as we swipe our ID badge in order to pass through the front door, however, they waste no time scattering in all directions.
Animals seem to understand man’s technology far better than we give them credit for. At least with regard to how it figures into their personal safety.
So today the squirrels continue to munch away at the shriveled-up cherries, apparently completely oblivious to our presence.
While we were enjoying their show, one squirrel in particular did something which to him was completely innocuous, but which to us was an entirely new experience, one which we’d never even considered before, and the one which we referred to at the top of this post. He made a particularly acrobatic leap — a grand jeté that Baryshnikov himself might envy — and landed on a swinging branch, casually grabbing a cherry with his front paws, and began munching away. It was then that we noticed what appeared to be an arc of water that came from where he was sitting. This was followed by another, longer arc.
We’ve seen many things in our life, God knows, but we have to confess that until today, we’d never seen a squirrel take a piss. We’d never even thought of it before. Of course, we realized that they surely must, as all creatures do, but still it was quite unexpected.
And, of course, to begin a new year by experiencing something — anything — new and unexpected is certainly noteworthy.
Still, if this really does carry with it some sort of portent for the year ahead, one might be excused for having a sense of foreboding.