Well, the inexorable passage of time has bought about the inevitable. When Kelly arrived home today she said somewhat forlornly, ďThereís a dead squirrel on the road down there". I immediately ran down the steep hillside in the forest, the same one I grew up on many, many years ago. My furry red friend was lying motionless on the street, surrounded by shadow with just a sliver of late afternoon light falling upon his body through the tall trees. The sight was really amazing: gritty tarmac, lifeless body and a single slice of light shining through the pines. Shadows imperceptibly descended all around, while silvery particulates shimmered silently in the single luminous shaft that radiated down from the sun and touched the lifeless body before me. To see this manifestation was stunning; how did it happen to be that at that this precise moment of passage, the only light on the road was directly illuminating the dearly departed? How did this animal spirit escape its body here in this place, bathed in a beautiful beam of heavenly light? How am I now connected to this moment in all eternity?
There is no picture of this moment in time. There is only the memory. Someday, that too will be gone.
I would have rushed to get my camera since the scene was so mystical, all light and shadow and squirrel, but there was purity in the passage of this animal, a balance that transcended anything I could have captured electronically. An image seen but not taken, something that was once there and is now forever gone. The light filtered down through the branches of the trees as I stood there and marveled at the ethereal beauty before me. Carefully, I picked up the still-warm squirrel, carried him to the side of the road and went hunting for an appropriate bark bier. Amazingly, there was not a mark on the body, his eyes wide open, alive mere minutes before. He was soft and warm. Once he was on the bier, I carried him home.
I brought him back to our yard where he played every day, where he hoarked down the piles bird food we put out (not exactly for him and his buck-toothed friends), ate the doormats and wooden railings (dammit), dug up the succulents (nooo, not the succulents) and generally tore the yard to shreds. You just can't trust these rodents. We have several squirrels representing two distinct species, and both occasionally cause hilarious havoc and occasional mayhem in our garden. And yet, of course, they are utterly delightful. Sadly, the red squirrels are displacing the gray squirrels rather quickly. In fact, I was initially panicked that the victim might in fact be our sole remaining gray, who had recently built a nest high in a tree at the edge of our property near the road. I love the grays dearly. They have wonderful bushy tails and make the most marvelous barking chatter noise as they go about their business in the forest canopy. We never used to see the reds at all until recently; not until the past two years perhaps. Hardly see the well-behaved Western Grays (Sciurus griseus) anymore; the red Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) that is displacing them is decidedly pernicious (but still cute). Hereís the single gray-tail thatís left in my yard, one of the few now left in the forest on the hill (notice the lovely white gut, big ears and fluffy tail):
Anyway, we have (or had, anyway) three reds, but one got mange and disappeared, the big male was just clobbered on the road and (hopefully) the female is pregnant and still around. Only one gray is left, as I mentioned; the last of its kind in our neck of the woods. Survival of the fittest isnít necessarily that. The gray tails are supremely adapted to the Monterey Pine forests. The red tails are just more aggressive. And faster breeders, I think. I noticed recently that our (late) friend seemed to have made a nest with his female counterpart in the tallest old pine tree in the yard (aptly named "Gigantor", which will no doubt fall spectacularly in my lifetime, squirrels and all, if Iím lucky enough to make it that far). I think they were having wild rampant squirrel sex up there. They would chase each other around and around the tree, up and down the trunk, all bushy tails and scrabbling paws, like a squirrel cyclone out of a cartoon. They would chase each other across our deck and down the stairs into the yard. The staccato thumps as they bounded up and down the steps were absolutely hilarious. They would drink from our fountain and wash their paws in the water. Not so nice were the ratty deposits left on the railings and gnaw-marks from various taste tests around the back yard. Unfortunately, this death today is in no way atypical; aside from the general nature of forest life in a pre-apocalyptic world, Iíve seen squashed squirrels on my street since I was a youngster back in 1968. Iíve been predicting carnage all spring this year (and not just in the stock market). Squirrels and cars have a predictable outcome. Mercifully, red wasnít gooshed, just clipped. He was still beautiful, even in death. No sign of trauma. The light fell upon his body, the shadows fell upon the trees..
The naturalist in me relished this opportunity for a closer inspection of the creature (and the shaman too, I suppose, wanting to be in some way imbued with the spirit of the animal). He rested on the bark bier on the same railing that he had scampered upon this morning. The first thing I noticed was the softness of the pads on the feet; very, very sensitive. The feet really were amazing: incredibly large paws with short nails (no doubt from constant use). Beautiful orange choppers in a pink mouth. Short stubby ears (diagnostic for the species, along with the foxy fur). The limbs were very strong and certainly had to be; I watched this animal hanging upside down clinging to the bark for hours while it raided the bird feeder pretty much every day (one of the benefits of my early semi-retirement). This particular specimen was indeed well-fed, and had a beautiful, luxurious coat (very soft). The fur was an even more gorgeous color up close compared to what I had observed at a distance daily. Yes, there were a couple fleas (I had seen them on dead grays clobbered by cars years ago and so checked specifically for parasites). However, no signs of any disease or other pathologies. Handsome. Powerful. Vaguely related to multituberculate mammals from a long, long, LONG time ago. Convergent evolution. Similar lifestyles perhaps, just without the theropods and other toothy monsters chasing after it. We share a common ancestor with the squirrel, and those ancestors speak to us still in our DNA, although the message is muted. These things we have forgotten, the dragons in our dreams. Maybe cars are scarier than dinosaurs though, at least for squirrels (if not humans). Peak oil has all kinds of profound implications, you know. Everything is connected, everything is sacred, and the mundane result is ultimately the same, no matter what we do.
The ephemeral nature of life is particularly poignant, like a lovely lake that disappears dramatically in a drought. I cannot begin to describe the overwhelming sorrow and simultaneous transcendent joy that the realization all things must pass brings to me. The scale of time is utterly staggering when felt in its fullness, especially in the remote and desolate canyons of the Southwest, far from the transient constructs of our contemporary culture. In solitude, the silence is deafening. This perspective is the most precious thing of all. Thatís the beauty of the desert and why it calls out to me so; in the heart of wilderness the very bones of the earth are literally exposed, like crystal dragons of the Dreamtime. Dinosaur bone marrow, filled with radiant minerals, emanates an endless half-life. The energy lingers. Fossil raindrops lie immortalized on a Jurassic mudflat: a slice of time, cracked and crenulated by golden sunlight that once warmed Pangaea, now but a twinkle on the other side of the galaxy. The earth has memory, yet we forget. Suspended memories, forgotten gods. Fossils provide ghostly proof of drifting continents, of endless life lost, of deepest time and the interconnectedness of all things. That we are able to perceive the significance of this, that we can sense a glimmer of lost worlds and vanished lives, that in the dark eternity that is the multiverse our bodies are blissfully blessed by the rays of the sun, that we are able to stand for but a moment or two in light with shadows falling all around: this is the wildest magic of all.