Sunday, November 14, 2010

Squirrel Prayer

Chuck Gosswiller is a big guy with a reddish beard and climbs trees like a nimble raccoon. He was dangerously close to the top of the big maple tree in my yard, trimming some limbs that had halfway broken in a storm, when he yelled down that he'd have to go to the hardware store for a chainsaw part. Once on the ground, I asked if I could ride along with him, as I needed to get a new spring for Mr. Choppy, the faithful vegetable chopper that has served our kitchen so well for many years. It also chops nuts.

So off we went in Chuck's pick-up truck. We rode in silence; no conversation was necessary as we had Mr. Choppy and chainsaw parts on our minds. A few minutes into the ride, Chuck pulled the truck over to the side of the road. He reached across my lap, opened the glove compartment and withdrew a small, handmade booklet with a drawing of a squirrel on the cover. "This won't take long," he said.
"What's wrong?"
"Squirrel," he replied.
I got out of the truck with him, "What squirrel?"
"Passed away, on the road behind us." Chuck had a serious tone and a sense of urgency to his voice. "Gotta get him off the road. That's no way to be," he said while rummaging around in the bed of the truck. He found what he was looking for and held it up, "Squirrel scooper." It had a long, hand-carved handle like a shovel, and the shovel part was bent at a 45 degree angle, perfect for scooping. The carvings were very intricate detailings of acorns and vines.
It deserved one of the many compliments I graciously bestow on people who do marvelous things. "That's really something, you make that?" I said.
"It does the job," and he walked back to the dead squirrel, scooped him up and placed him in some weeds about ten feet off the road. Then he stood over the squirrel and read out-loud from the homemade squirrel booklet. I only recall a few lines, but here are the highlights:

--You were a thrifty little soul; you stored your nuts in secret places.
--You were brave, jumping from limb to limb, high above the earth.
--You were trustworthy. Squirrels don't tell lies.
--You were loyal. Not like Susan.

It was touching, and aside from the Susan reference, I believe it owed a debt to the Boy Scout Oath. When he was finished, he took a handful of nuts from his pocket and scattered them around the squirrel.

Chuck returned to the truck, and I inquired about the ceremony.
"Squirrel prayer," he explained. "I say one for every unfortunate squirrel I run across whether it's a familiar squirrel or an anonymous squirrel. It's the least I could do. They provide entertainment, lighting up the trees with their antics." He patted his front pocket. "That bulge is my nuts."
I gave the mound a discrete glance before quietly commenting, "Remarkable."
"Yes," he went on, "I keep a pocketful with me always; give the squirrels a treat when I meet 'em in the tree tops. And when I find one that's passed-on, I spread some nuts around the body so its friends will have something to eat when they come to pay their respects."

We rode the rest of the way in silence, Chuck probably thinking about the squirrel, and me thinking about Chuck thinking about the squirrel. We got our Mr. Choppy and chainsaw parts, and on the way home I made an attempt to get Chuck to open up. "Who's Susan?"
He twitched his beard a little bit. "Someone without squirrel principles."
"Do you have other prayers for different animals, like a 'possum prayer or a raccoon prayer?"
He tilted his head away from me as if to imply my question was completely out of bounds. "Now that would be peculiar behavior, don't you think?"
It seemed like a perfectly logical sequence, but sometimes silence is the most civil detour, so I remained quiet.
"Nope," he continued, "I just stick to squirrels. I wrote the prayer because you can count on a squirrel for a friend, not like people. A squirrel will not laugh at you. A squirrel will not disappoint you. I've never seen a squirrel act like a jackass, but I've seen plenty of people act like one."
"Like Susan?"
"Yes, like Susan."