It is what man does not know of God
Composes the visible poem of the world.
— Richard Eberhardt, from “On A Squirrel
Crossing the Road, In Autumn, In New England”
The black Mercedes in front of me swerved to the right but I couldn’t see what for. I was almost upon the squirrel crouching in the middle of Rossmore Avenue when it looked at me before disappearing underneath the chassis. It looked at me with utter sentience, almost recognition: You are the one who has come to end my life.
The creature was a tawny brown with the smudge of charcoal common to city squirrels. I had no chance to admire the bushiness of its tail. Its eyes, though, were dark and shiny, its expression grave and entirely calm.
I was the one who was not sentient. I couldn’t think what to do with the car. I locked eyes with the squirrel but was unable to halt or divert my trajectory. I had the brief, irrational thought that I could just pass over the animal without doing it any harm. Until I heard the thud.
In Los Angeles, squirrels are regarded unsentimentally as the rodents they in fact are, infected with plague and rabies and to be avoided. But in the wintry landscape of my Midwestern childhood, the squirrel inspires more affection: industrious, nut-gathering, fluffy-tailed creatures who stand up on their hind legs to nibble the acorn clutched expertly between their front paws.
I drive a thirteen-year-old Honda del Sol, slung so low to the ground that my mother, with her bad back, has trouble getting into and out of it. There’s no way an average-size L.A. ground squirrel perched on its hind legs looking at me could be expected to hunker under the frame and emerge unscathed. My bumper, traveling at about 39 miles per hour in a 35 m.p.h. zone, must have knocked it right in the face and pushed it over. I’m guessing there was some kind of spinal cord and/or neurological damage, because when I looked in the rearview mirror, it was on its back, twitching and flopping with a ferocity that lifted its body from the pavement.
I believe it suffered in those final moments.
There was nothing I could do. No place to pull over to stop. No gun with which to put it out of its misery. No way to rewind the moment to undo my thoughtless lethal act. The next car, or the next was going to lay a tire across the creature’s lighter colored belly, and that would put an end to its convulsions.
I did not want to witness that, and forced my eyes forward. Perhaps this looking away was the worst of the actions I committed that day.
The squirrel’s common name comes from the ancient Greeks, where Aristotle used the word skiouros—skia meaning “shade” while oura means “tail.” Thus the meaning, “one who sits in the shadow of one’s tail.”
The squirrel uses its tail primarily for balance; it allows the squirrel to move quickly without falling. Should the squirrel fall, the tail is used as a parachute to slow its descent. It can serve as a blanket in winter. The tail is also a means of communication.
Squirrels in captivity have lived to be twenty years old. However, most urban squirrels will die before their first birthday, not from predators or lack of food, but by being run over by vehicles.
I have a pretty relaxed attitude when it comes to death. I don’t fear it for myself, although I hope to avoid extreme violence and suffering in my exit. When people I know leave their bodies, I feel the pang of missing them, but I also celebrate their freedom from the prison of the flesh. I’m happy to stay here as long as I can be useful, but I’m also ready to leave anytime. I certainly don’t imagine that life on earth is the best God has to offer.
I accept that life preys on life. My cat will devour a junco when it can. The coyote creeps down from the drought-stricken hills to stalk the cat. Tonight I will sit down to a plate of salmon. I am merciless with ants. But I am resentful when death uses me as its instrument. How can I regard myself as good with the squirrel now added to the body count?
The body count: This squirrel; a sparrow in the middle of Perlita Avenue; a chipmunk long ago in Vermont—all these by car. Countless insects: ants, mosquitoes, termites, fleas, flies, spiders (by mistake), and others whose names I do not even know. That is the way with genocide. Fish and seafood of many kinds and, as a child, chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, lambs, although in these cases I never did the killing, only consumed the flesh.
Perhaps part of the problem is the wish to claim goodness, which might imply better than, an attempt to exempt myself from the killing machine that is life. Perhaps few of us earn the luxury of keeping our hands clean.
My friend Susan suggests, once I’ve confessed to her, that the squirrel had a death wish. What else would it be doing in the middle of Rossmore Avenue on Sunday afternoon? Maybe I helped it to its destiny, she suggests, by way of absolution.
But maybe he was running across the street and just got scared, frozen midway between the north- and south-bound lanes. And there I was in my del Sol, rushing to keep on schedule; our trajectories, nature and culture, both immutable, colliding, two threads in a pattern too immense to perceive.