Squirrels are dramatic creatures. It is easy to undersell them as nut-fixated simpletons who are constantly over-reacting to all manner of real and perceived threat. There is the road-crossing thing to consider as well. But we as a species can hardly point an accusatory finger. One observation trip to watch Walmart customers should confirm that we should be very humble when it comes to touting the superior human condition. I go to Walmart, by the way, so I am admitting that this pot is as black as the kettle.
On this note, Shakespeare didn’t invent the “pot calling the kettle black” imagery, but my use of it does bring up a literary thought (he did say that “the raven chides blackness” which evokes the same idea). Imagine, if you will, a Shakespearian world of Squirrel drama and perhaps you’ll see these rodents in a new nobler light. Shakespeare populated his plays with all manner of fools and squirrel-like characters. If he had written actual squirrels into the roles then things would be different. “Romeo, oh Romeo where is thee my nut” might have made it into the mainstream. Playing Sciurus in “Roads Half Crossed” would be a choice role for aspiring actors.
As an example, let me forward a discussion of squirrel feet. In his play Troilus and Cressida, the Bard has Ulysses state: “The elephant hath joints, but none for courtesy: his legs are legs for necessity, not for flexure.” I other words, elephants are made to do elephant things (such as march in a line like in the Jungle Book). Might he have used a Fox Squirrel’s amazing front foot as an example as well? “The squirrel has toes, but five is not his number: four the nut deed it does better than our five.”
Equipped with long toes, Fox Squirrels (as all tree squirrels) have evolved so that their fifth toe has become a rubbery nub. They also have two thick pads on their “wrist.” With this combination they are able to secure circular and orbitcular (whoa, that was definitely not a Walmart word) objects –aka nuts – with security. So held, the teeth can then do their thing and they can manipulate their food with precision and dexterity. An elegant piece of prose the squirrel foot is.
Ah, but squirrels do not just grab nuts with their sinewy fingers. Over the course of the summer I witnessed one of my Red Squirrels feasting upon a muskrat skull. This certainly evokes that famous scene in Hamlet where Horatio and the prince examine Yorick’s skull. Seated on her favorite walnut devouring perch, the reigning queen Red Squirrel occasionally selects a muskrat skull from my pile (that’s another story) and devours it. Like all rodents they crave calcium and will eat any bone material they find. This is why shed deer antlers are so hard to find, by the way – thus the un-written line: “My resolve, like a shed horn in a squirrel wood, shant last.”
I find the muskrat/squirrel scene an especially poignant one because the two animals are cousins, although she could not have known the ‘rat in question. The Red Squirrel’s own skull is a smaller scale version of the muskrat’s noggin. Four self-sharpening front incisors are followed by a toothless gap and a double row of flat molars. The incisors are frequently rubbed together with a forward motion of the lower jaw and their edges are thus honed (compare the two photos below). Sharp teeth cut through nut shells like butter. Squirrels, therefore, gnash their teeth on purpose. “Heavily my buck teeth grind -not of nervousness but of need.”
I stumbled upon on the dead body of one of my front yard Fox Squirrels last week. It was freshly dead with only a bloody nose. Because it was far from the deadly road that had claimed another squirrel the week previous, I could only conclude that it fell out of the Red Maple under whose branches it lay. Yes, squirrels do slip and fall to their death on occasion. Perhaps it was driven to madness by the government shutdown news or distracted by the recent death of his sibling. Whatever the cause, it tumbled to earth and remained there.
I’m not sure if any Shakespearian character ever fell to his/her death (thus revealing my squirrelish understanding of the genre) but I certainly know that ghosts and spirits abound within his world. Hamlet’s father appears as a ghost, for instance. Gazing upon the small dead rodent before me I wondered what afterlife, if any, is enjoyed by such creatures. Heaven must have animals in it. There are cats are in Hell, why can’t there be squirrels in heaven?
I picture my beast, now noble, entering into the heavenly fold at the base of a tremendous Walnut tree – a Walmart of nuts – which is piled with an endless cornucopia of orbicular pleasure. Shakespeare has Hamlet remark: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If he’d written “There are more nuts in heaven and earth etc.” I suspect our world view of squirrels would be much better than it currently is. “Sleep well my sweet prince.”