Last June I sat at the base of my favorite tree, the lake soothing me with casual tongues of water lapping at the shore and a plethora of wildlife jaunting about or lounging in whatever shade they could find so as to escape the broiling Texas sun. Even as my ancient flora friend graced me with shade from simmering heat, I likewise knew the animals sharing that moment with me looked for whatever cover was available to them.
I had a book with me: The Krone Experiment by Dr. J. Craig Wheeler, the regents professor of astronomy at UT Austin. Let me say now that Dr. Wheeler is a gracious man, intelligent and witty, and a perfectly fine, truly intellectual gentleman. We’ve corresponded before. In fact, he recently sent me a signed copy of The Krone Experiment in hardcover form as it’s no longer available and my paperback version had suffered terribly over the decades since I purchased it. The novel itself is a suspenseful tale of science gone wrong, of political and international intrigue. Despite having read it many times before, it’s a faithful companion to me and a good friend to have along on such trips. (Assuming Dreamdarkers becomes a published novel, I will be sending him a signed copy as thanks for his inspiration, entertainment, and generosity.)
So I sat in the shade of a timeless friend reading a narrative as comfortable as an old sweater. At some point, I casually glanced over my shoulder for what at the time seemed to be no apparent reason. Of course, I knew ducks had found some shade trees behind me, and I also knew a gaggle of assorted geese and a dray of squirrels had been wandering about when I first came to sit in that place.
What I spied with a simple glance eventually became my close encounter. It started with this:
The eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) galloped casually over green grass burning in the noon sun. It seemed to be watching me, although my position and the distance between us prohibited me from being certain of that impression. Yet it did appear headed for the very tree against and under which I sat.
So I laid the book aside and grabbed my camera. A bit of subtle maneuvering brought me around the tree enough to comfortably watch the little beastie at it marched quite deliberately in my direction.
Even as I clicked away at the camera controls snapping photos, this “tree rat” (as Libby is so fond of calling them) walked and leaped and trotted in my direction. I felt certain I had nothing to do with it, but instead the tree sheltering me with lush foliage truly was the intended target of this visitor. And then it stopped. But not just stopped; it stood and carefully examined me.
Only then did it slow the closing of whatever distance rested betwixt us. While I cannot be certain as to how far away it was at that point, I know a casual toss of the camera would have landed it on top of the squirrel. Yet it didn’t stop.
No, it didn’t stop. It walked more casually, more carefully, but it kept coming nonetheless.
I continued snapping pictures. Daring not to move suddenly lest I frighten the guest, and certainly not so selfish as to believe the tree meant its comforts solely for me, I sat quietly and as still as was possible given my position kept shifting slightly to keep the approaching squirrel in sight and focus. And still it kept coming until finally it paused, then only an arm’s length from me, and again it focused all its attention on me. I could even see my own distorted reflection in its eye as its head turned first this way then that.
When at last I felt I might explode from the excitement of its nearness, it challenged me to hold my place by coming ever closer, ever nearer, until finally it stood next to both the tree and I. Seeing myself in its eyes held power over me, a controlling dominion of sorts I could never explain, and there we stayed for but a moment. I sat motionless and watched as I carefully took another picture, and it stood with an intent gaze fixed upon me. How wondrous.
And then it nonchalantly turned and climbed the tree with effortless abandon. Its quick scurrying carried it up directly above me until finally it came to rest on a limb, tossed its arms on either side of its welcoming bed, and there it napped in the safe embrace of our ancient tree friend.