…Still the same bright, parched, brilliant day without rain. The whole countryside is tender. A grey squirrel runs very lightly over the dried leaves.
–Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Journals, October 17, 1963
October days are stealing
All swiftly on their way;
The squirrels now are working,
The leaves are out at play;
The busy, busy children
Are gathering nuts so brown,
The birds are gaily planning
A winter out of town.
–Clara L. Strong, “October,” c.1906
One year, back in the 1970s, while undertaking one of several annual advanced meditation teacher training retreats with Maharishi in the Swiss Alps, my quarters were just on the edge of a mountainside wildlife reserve. Every day after lunch I would take a brief walk in this forest. The first day I entered the wooded reserve, squirrels, one by one, came hopping up to me along the path. They would pause and stand up to take almonds or raisins from my outstretched fingers and then hop a foot or so away to nibble their treats. After the first day, they not only would stay to eat out of my hand, but one at a time would scamper up to rest in the crook of my elbow, or even sit on my shoulder.
It was delightful. If I placed an almond on the top of my head, a little fellow would hop up there to claim its prize. One or the other would even continue resting for awhile in the crook of my arm or sitting on my shoulder while I continued strolling along the path for a ways before climbing down and scurrying back among the undergrowth and trees.
They were so delicate, careful, agile, and, I would even say, extremely well mannered, but always came with an avid appetite!
After the first couple of days, each time I walked deeper into the woods, just past the ‘squirrel visiting zone,’ small birds would approach in a similar manner, arriving to eat out of my hands, and alighting one or two at a time on my arms, shoulders and head. They were so much more delicate and refined than the squirrels that they instantly made their furry neighbors seem almost like slightly uncouth rustics cousins. But I loved them both. Once each tribe had quickly assessed that I came in peace and always with treats in hands and pockets, they were as friendly and relaxed with me as if we had been close family members or beloved friends all our lives.
A few years later, living in Chicago while attending grad school, I dated a woman who had a very small wild squirrel as her closest neighbor and friend. This woman’s apartment was on the fourth floor of a building on a quiet, tree-lined street. One day at noon, while she ate her lunch in front of an open window, a squirrel had made its appearance at her windowsill planter box. She reached out and offered the visiting neighbor a morsel of her meal, and thus their friendship had become established.
Her new friend lived among the branches of a tree a small hop from her window sill and started showing up several days a week to enjoy sharing lunch together. If my friend was going to be away at noon time, she would leave a few morsels for her squirrel buddy hidden among the flowers growing in the planter box outside her window sill. The two neighbors quickly became close enough friends that the squirrel would fully enter through the window just far enough to sit on the closest corner of my friend’s table, eventually allowing itself to be petted and held in the palms of her hands, but it never ventured further in to explore the apartment, nor would it stay longer than a few minutes. My own presence in the apartment was accepted by this friendly neighbor, and though I was also able to feed and pet the critter, it never sat in my hands allowing itself to be cosseted as by my lady friend; that was their own special exchange of affection.