My first encounter with mortality came at the age of eight or so, when on a Saturday morning, some of the neighbourhood kids knocked on the back door to tell us that they’d found a dead squirrel. This was a big deal, maybe because some of us were Catholic, concerned with where this little soul would end up; maybe because we were too young to drive, and so hadn’t yet become hardened to the sight of flattened critters on the road.
We suspended normal play, as we set about giving Squirrel a decent burial. A site was picked, along the side of one friend’s house in this dense, wooded suburb. Someone found a little shovel, and another friend scurried off, returning with a two strips of wood nailed together in the shape of a cross. The grave was dug, the squirrel interred and laid to rest in a forested place, the cross driven into the ground. I don’t recall if any prayers were said. We left it at that, a tiny blessing on a hapless creature.
I thought of this incident yesterday. A half-block from my house, I walked around a corner to see a car zip down the street, crushing the hind legs of a sleek black squirrel. The poor thing inched its way to the grass along the side of the road and lay there. I ran back home, and enlisted my spouse as we rounded up a box and a towel to fetch the victim, then called the Animal Rescue people, wondering if the squirrel — showing no other signs of injury — was unconscious or dead. We suspected internal bleeding and so did the kindly folks on the animal hot-line. There were no signs of life.
Those of you who come from war-torn countries — or have otherwise suffered the loss of loved ones — may wonder if this is Hallmark-Card sensibility gone bonkers.
Yet as a writer, I spend a lot of time alone, and I love and appreciate wildlife companionship. On winter days, I watch the squirrels taking shelter from the wind, scurrying up to my windowsill, their lush tails hugging their bodies. The cardinals and woodpeckers, the tiny chickadees and finches that come to the feeder bring colour and awe to my life. I’m overwhelmed by these slight creatures, their gift of flight, their songs that wake me on an early spring morning. I am thankful for the great gift of their brief and tender lives.
So if a wild creature perishes in our presence — and if circumstances permit — I believe they are worthy of whatever ritual speaks to the passing of their spirits and the hope of life’s renewal. In a more whimsical mood, I imagine the Great Parliament of the Vertebrates marking the squirrel’s passing with a moment of silence; then woods where he may safely play in a world outside of time.