I was engaged in reassuringly normal small talk one day when the discussion turned unexpectedly to animals and, in particular, which animal best symbolized each of us who was talking. If someone is going to describe you as an animal, you want them to say you’re a lion, a wolf or maybe an eagle. What you don’t want to hear is what came next.
“Oh!” exclaimed the woman leading the discussion when she came to me, clasping her hands with enthusiasm. “You’re a squirrel!”
I stared at her with open contempt. How had a perfectly pleasant conversation led to me being called a rodent? My only interaction with squirrels had been years earlier when my husband and I had volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation centre. The squirrels had been alright with me, but had tormented my husband. As he knelt to feed them, the males had swung from the roof of their cage acrobatically and whizzed on him like furry little Jedi wielding yellow light sabers. My recollection of him yelling out, “Tree rats! Tree rats!” in retaliation was what came to mind when the woman called me a squirrel.
I was still grumbling about it that day when something caught my eye outside the window. At the top of a giant maple tree, a little black squirrel was hurling itself from one distant branch to another, landing gracefully every time. I started warming up to the squirrel idea in spite of myself. That particular squirrel, at least, seemed admirably determined to fly in spite of lacking the accepted equipment for aviation.
Years later, I lived for some time in a house near the Ganaraska. On my first night there, I slipped a hand under my pillow and touched on something hard: a nut left by an unseen squirrely stranger. I never discovered how a gift-bearing squirrel had gotten inside the house, but it would do so again, the next time leaving me a nut in a wine glass. One thing seemed certain: the tree rats were trying to win me over to the squirrel side.
Sometimes, when I was bored, I would do Internet research on squirrels to find any reason to be proud of my so-called animal symbol. Apparently, scientists think squirrels only use one quarter of their cache. The other three quarters of those nuts and seeds are used by other squirrels — possibly the squirrel’s own family, but sometimes complete strangers — or more often, lost forever to grow into some of today’s most robust forests. I liked the idea that a squirrel doesn’t need immediate gratification: most of a squirrel’s job seems to be planting opportunities for other squirrels, or even other time lines, and the squirrel doesn’t seem to mind. That may even be part of the adventure.
I lost my disdain for squirrels completely when I realized that human history is full of them. Two summers ago, I lived on Scriven Road, which is named after Joseph Scriven, writer of the world’s most famous hymn. The thing is, Joseph Scriven didn’t know he had written a hymn. Joseph Scriven wrote a poem, which in his lifetime appeared in the Port Hope Guide. Someone in New York City received a parcel wrapped in that edition of the Guide and was so impressed by the poem, they took it to a New York newspaper to be re-published. A travelling music salesman read the poem in the New York publication and found it so comforting that he carried it with him on his travels until eventually he misplaced it at an organ factory in Pennsylvania. The owner of that factory found the poem and set it to the music which became loved around the world. Joseph Scriven was not a hymn composer — he was a squirrel, and it took a lot of other squirrels to produce the world’s most popular hymn.
I was talking to a friend about this recently and pondering with her whether Millbrook might be a whole village of squirrels. We wondered what people might say in 100 years about this tiny, innocuous place that tore down its prison, got by just fine without its bank, preserved its library and historic mill, expanded its school and gave it an outdoor classroom, and invested financial resources in community at a time when the mainstream news told us to be afraid of each other. I predicted they’d say that Millbrook was sowing seeds for the future more far-reaching than we could ever have known.
When I got home that night, I picked up the Millbrook Times and read its front page headline: Building a Different Kind of Bank for the Future. The article was about a new Millbrook seed bank. I read it and could not hold back my smile.
Babble by Anita Odessa