I suppose dead squirrels are the norm of death in suburban America. Aside from the ominous “Estate Sale, Next Right” signs that periodically pop up around my neighborhood (Williamsburg used to be zoned just for senior citizens until a few years ago, therefore seeing these signs are not unusual. Perhaps the area was rezoned due to their frequency), these small little gray and white puffs of dead, quite often on the side of the road or smeared all over it, are the only visible indications of death in an otherwise quiet subdivision.
This realization should have been on my mind as I took an early morning (sunrise) walk. Intent on changing my routine a bit (standard day: feed cats, put out birdseed, workout, prayer, shower, breakfast, off to work), and given that I am on vacation this week (I’m still in my pjs and its 8:30!), I put on some wooly socks and a sweatshirt (and yes, pants), and walked out into the chilly morning air. I figured that a walk might center my mind a bit more for Morning Prayer, just as my evening walk centers me a bit for evening prayer. I breathed deeply and exhaled a plume of foggy air. I gazed at the dew on the grass, a slight misty fog in the air, and birds hopping from branch to branch in the trees.
On most mornings my only venture outside before going to work is filling up the birdfeeder with a few handfuls of sunflower seeds. I then look out my window and see three, sometimes four squirrels chasing off the birds and diving into the seeds. I don’t mind this in the least; the squirrels are more entertaining, which made the whole experience almost like watching TV. Now, here I was, out in the open, mixing it up with the early morning mammals.
My pace had a slight jaunt as I turned the corner, on my way back to the house. I felt good- the crisp air was working on me like a cup of coffee. I looked in the distance over to my humble abode at the birdfeeder in my backyard.
It was empty.
That was okay, sometimes the squirrels are a little fidgety and don’t come until later on in the morning.
Then I almost stepped on one.
I stumbled a bit, simply because my raised foot was doing one of those instinctual “don’t step down!” actions that leaves the rest of the body with no choice but to nearly fall down. Regaining balance, I looked again and saw not one, but two dead squirrels lying by the side of the road. Jaunty demeanor gone, I scratched my head and thought “What the hell?” and fought the urge to walk away. Any adult would recognize this. When we are younger, it’s deemed socially acceptable, if a little gross, to poke dead animals with sticks, or to pay careful attention to the rhythm and buzzing of flies around a corpse. Adult seeing this recognize a curiosity about death, one that is healthy for a child’s psychological development. However, an adult mooning around a tiny animal that has shuffled off this mortal coil is considered with some suspicion. So even though it was early morning, I still glanced quickly around to see if anyone was watching me.
No, I did not poke the squirrels with sticks. I think the origin of their demise was quite clear, thought the odds were against it. People drive fast down this road, squirrels do that “I’m-going-to-cross-no-I’m-not-perhaps-maybe-yes” routine, and this time, two instead of the regular one got clipped by a tire. What to do now? When I was a kid, this situation would have been a direct imperative to get a shovel and a flat stone to create a makeshift grave. The sense of purpose and the expression of ritual could have been an instinct. But now I just gazed awkwardly at the little dead guys, not sure how to proceed. “Aw, poor fellas,” and walking away felt too perfunctory. Shovel and flat stone seemed not only awkward, but disturbing, revealing a need for some psychiatric counseling in the least. What to do? I stood there, wondering. The sun rose higher in the sky, and cars began to drive by. I felt weird. I had awkward thoughts of God, Life, Death, all of which seemed either juvenile or pretentious. In the end, even with my overly analytical mind, I simply said “poor fellas,” mourned a bit at the now limited cast of entertainment by my birdfeeder, and shuffled off toward home. Back in the house, I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked out the window.