Life advice from a squirrel

Grey squirrel on side of tree Sharon Day/Shutterstock

I don’t speak Squirrel, but this one was making himself perfectly clear.

It was early autumn, and I’d been cutting trees. The squirrel had been chasing another one, and his quarry ran between my legs—I was standing with a chainsaw in my hand, admiring the sky, the air cool and hard as limestone—and once I moved, he stopped the chase, climbed up onto a spruce I’d just felled, and studied me. Man and rodent, locked in a staring contest I lost when he started chittering with unmistakable rage.

I knew exactly what he was worked up about. Before last summer, the point of land on a lake two hours north of Kingston, Ont., where we both stood had been completely undeveloped. No hydro, no docks, many of the trees dating back to the early part of the previous century, when the last big wildfire came through. Then our family bought it.

The goal was modest, if particular: clear as little of the land as possible so that we could erect a small summer cabin. Off-grid, single-storey, no motorboats, no noise. Yet there were still trees that had to come down, still trucks that had to wriggle through to deliver materials, still changes to be made. This squirrel had been a witness to all of it. And he was pissed.

I saw myself as being on his side. When we put in a bid for this two-acre piece of Canadian Shield, we were looking for things that most cottage owners don’t want: far from the easy reach of the city, no cute ice cream place or woodsy decor shop or tasting menu for miles, a lake free of growling speedboats and clear-cut landscape architecture. Our dream was to keep the woods the woods, to turn our backs for a time on the gibbering nonsense of social media and the elevator-stuck-between-floors anxiety of living downtown, to be away.

But the squirrel was pointing out, at great length, that the human quest for silence creates echoes, no matter how tiptoed our intrusion. Isolation, privacy, quiet: these are commodities the same as a boathouse, a hot tub, or an Italian marble countertop. They come with costs to the consumer and the natural world alike. To minimize the latter requires us to ask questions. Do you really need the cottage? If you do, what’s the smallest version available? What would the squirrels—and the birds, and the snakes, and the trees—think of it being dropped onto their home? What will your children make of your decision when they realize that those same birds and snakes and trees hold an irreplaceable value much higher than any motorized toy or waterproof sound system?

After I spent a full minute absorbing his squirrelly abuse, the animal stopped. He didn’t run off as I expected him to. His eyes remained fixed on me, his paws held out in front of his chest in a what-do-you-have-to-say-about-that? gesture.

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

I put the chainsaw away. And the pine I’d marked with an X? The one we wanted to remove to give us a glimpse of the water? I left it standing. Now, when we look out at it, we don’t see it as blocking the view, it is the view. One that reminds us how lucky we are to have that tree and others as homes for ill-tempered squirrels, and as the guardians of the quiet that came before us. 

Award-winning author Andrew Pyper’s latest novel, his ninth, is The Homecoming.

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