The sun shone brightly from its perch high above as the noon hour passed. With only a light breeze whispering about me and a comfortable temperature beckoning to be enjoyed, I leaned against the fence with my camera held gently in front of me as I pondered the trouble I might seek out there in the world. My belly was full from lunch and my imagination wished to take flight, so I contemplated the shape in which I might mold the day, a deliberation exercised from my patio. Ultimately, my only question was in regards to what might be accomplished this grand afternoon.
As I stood silently listening to and watching birds in their busy activities, a quick movement brought me back from my reverie. There, just below the bushes where a small space existed between their bases where they met the ground, a squirrel stood glancing this way and that, perhaps trying to determine where to go and what to do. How odd that we both might be in this place considering the same quandary at the same time. I, too, wished for a bit of direction, a moment of inspiration to guide me through the now to the later.
He — and I am assuming it was a he, although I have no basis for such an assumption and could likely be insulting one helluva hottie momma of a squirrel, a faux pas for which I apologize if I am indeed guilty of such — he stood erect to improve his view of the surroundings that enveloped us, casting his vision in one direction after another, his head jerking about in sudden movements that his body magically did not mimic. His front legs — arms? — were held across his chest with hands turned inward. His tail, the one piece of him that moved in addition to his head, twitched in what seemed to me a most random demonstration, although somehow I trust there was some method to its madness as it stood behind him like another squirrel, fluffed out and displayed with abrupt dancing. I marveled at the whole of the creature in all its idiosyncrasies.
Slowly, so slowly that even I thought myself unaware of it, I turned the camera and focused it on him. Because any movement would surely cause him to flee, I looked down using only my eyes until I could see the screen, and I used my best judgment to aim and snap a picture without actually having a clear view of what I might capture. Lack of preparation is a poor excuse for bad aim under any circumstances, and you can take that to the bank, yet I was quite pleased with the outcome, something of which I was unaware until much later.
Silently absorbing the image of his stance in my mind since attempting to review what the camera beheld would undoubtedly shatter the moment, I knew better than to push my luck when he quickly turned in my direction. Perhaps he saw my self-proclaimed unobtrusive movement. Perhaps he heard the click of the camera’s button, although it technically makes no noise since I disabled all the annoying bells and whistles. Perhaps he simply looked in that direction as part of his surveying of our shared surroundings. Regardless of the cause for his sudden attention, I stood perfectly still and watched from behind my sunglasses with full knowledge that he would dash away if I moved in even the smallest way.
To my surprise, he promptly dropped to all fours and ran up the tree a few feet outside my patio, the branches of which spread rapidly outward and are within easy reach from where I stood. He stopped once he reached a split in the branches providing a convenient spot in which to sit, then he looked directly at me. No more than a foot or so from my face, I dared not move for fear of scaring him into panic. I stood quietly and I stood still… and he sat quietly and watched me in the same manner. We regarded each other with curious indifference, although I suspect he was less indifferent and more concerned about whether or not I posed a threat. Only in hindsight did the cause for his inspection become clear.
I can not be certain, but I suspect only 30 seconds passed. I was fascinated with the nearness of the “tree rat” as Libby prefers to call them, his deep black eyes gazing at me and his body unmoving as though he were a prop. He could not see my eyes staring back at him from behind my sunglasses, and it was that masked presence which undoubtedly gave him a sense of safety, that and my absolute stillness, of course. My own curiosity and intrigue wished to reach out and touch the furry little being that was easily within my grasp at this short distance, perhaps even to take him into my arms, pet him carefully, and enjoy a brief moment with such a cute animal, but I am no fool; I knew that any movement would send him careening from the tree and out of sight. So I stood and he sat.
Then he leaped at me.
Not so much at me, I know, but certainly in my direction. He landed on the fence upon which I was leaning, and he stood no more than two or three inches from my arm and only a few more from my face. Again we stared at each other, for I had turned my head quickly while he jumped so that we were facing each other. Looking back on it, I’m quite certain that only an inch closer would have enabled me to feel his breath upon my face. Certainly the distance that separated us was minuscule and allowed me to see the creature in a way heretofore unknown to me.
It was amazing. It was magical. In utter serenity, we both stood looking at each other. There was no malice, no fear, no panic. We stood and watched. I was aware that he was quite leery of me and still uncertain as to my disposition. Despite this, however, he engaged in a wee bit of grooming, although even then it appeared gratuitous, almost as if it were only meant as a way to occupy a few seconds of time. At this distance, I could see my own reflection in his eyes, eyes he continually aimed in my direction as he carried on with his personal business. A part of me felt like fainting while another wanted to reach out and touch him. His nearness was truly breathtaking. It was also somewhat disconcerting for any sudden move could bring him in my direction.
I wondered what the next move was. I wondered where he would go from here. I wondered if he was thinking the same things of me, or if his only concern was whether or not I was a threat. It took all of my will to remain motionless. Tremendous effort was expended to control my breathing, as even a small gesture associated with that could be a catalyst for mayhem.
Suddenly and without warning, he rotated and jumped back into the tree, rapidly moved downward, reached the ground, and vanished out of sight back the way he came.
How I do wish I had been able to get more pictures. I cannot stress how unbelievably overwhelming the experience was despite it just being a squirrel. The nearness of the encounter left me flabbergasted, almost short of breath, and I remained where I was for several minutes more trying to absorb the totality of what had happened. For that brief moment in time, measured only in a few minutes, the squirrel shared with me an instant of peace, comfort and lack of fear. This strange mixture of human and wildlife kept each other company.
And the nearness of it…
[eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)]