Returning to the drey

I’m out on the porch with my coffee a little later than usual this morning. It’s about 6:30 and almost fully light, though still overcast and threatening snow or rain. I’m watching a gray squirrel at the edge of the woods with increasing interest. When I first notice her, she’s in the top of a tulip (a.k.a yellow poplar) tree, gathering a great wad of something long and stringy and stuffing it into her cheek pouches. I don’t have my binoculars with me, but I can see that the small, nearly horizontal branch she’s on has stuff dangling from it, and she’s grabbing strips of it – presumably the soft, inner bark of the tree. I’m guessing that it was recently exposed by the porcupine that lives in the crawl space under my house, though I don’t see its tracks in the snow.

The squirrel races back to her nest near the top of a slender black cherry tree about seventy-five feet from the tulip, quickly empties the contents of cheek pouches into it, and returns for another load. What with going up and down tree trunks to reach suitable lateral branches, it looks as if she travels about 150 feet for every fifty feet of straight-line distance. It’s at this point that I start getting really interested, thinking rather self-reflexively about the way my own mind works. I’ve often thought that, for North Americans, the Buddhist phrase “monkey-mind” should instead be translated as “squirrel-mind.” This morning, I see that while the branches are a given, the route is not.

I watch her make four trips before I get too cold and have to go inside. Each time she takes a slightly different route through the mid-level branches, and once she returns from nest to tulip by a completely different route, higher and farther back from the wood’s edge. In typical gray squirrel fashion she often uses her own weight to bridge a gap, small branches bending down to the point where she can leap the last couple feet to the twig-ends of the next branch. Since it’s not quite fully light, some of these smaller branches are invisible to me, which makes her progress appear even more death-defying and miraculous. However, I’ve watched enough squirrels to know that this spirit of experimentation and play seems to infect much of what they do. I don’t think that’s simply the affective fallacy on my part. If playfulness makes one avoid doing the same thing the same way twice, one is less likely to end up as someone else’s lunch. Predators are, by and large, a fairly single-minded lot.

Each time she returns to the same, small branch in the tulip tree and strips off more of the long, dangly stuff. She takes so much, she can’t even close her mouth. I figure she must be a female with babies on the way. What else could be so urgent as to require the gathering of new bedding material first thing in the morning, before breakfast?

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I often warn people about my normal style of discourse: even my digressions have digressions. Watching this squirrel thus feels strangely validating. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but who says that’s the best way to go? Much as we may envy and admire the single-mindedness of a hawk or an eagle, most of us are more like squirrels. The sooner we recognize this, it seems to me, the easier time we’ll have identifying and isolating the true predators among us.

Chris Clarke of Creek Running North shares a truly harrowing tale from his past, describing the serial killer his mother dated one summer when he was a young man. As always with Chris, the writing is exceptional – not one word too many or too few. His mother and a brother, both bloggers themselves, weigh in with their own recollections in the comments.

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I think it’s safe to say that the government of the United States of America now constitutes the largest and most dangerous predator the world has ever seen. In addition to launching unprovoked invasions of largely defenseless countries for the express purpose of stealing their oil, it has built a worldwide gulag archipelago of secret prisons where its enemies disappear without a trace. (Thanks to Newsdesk.org’s “News You Might Have Missed” e-newsletter for these links.) From a realpolitik perspective, indefinite detentions and systematic torture of suspects make little sense. The questionable value of intelligence gained under torture is surely not worth the strains with allies or the surge in Al Qaeda recruitment that such flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention tend to promote. Some have argued that it’s all about lowering the bar, so that in the future, similar or even more heinous actions will be tolerated by American voters. But I believe it’s mainly about power – reinforcing that strange feedback loop that links pleasure with oblivion. Why drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge when the ecological and political costs are so steep and the likely rewards so negligible that even the big oil companies don’t think it’s worth it? Why antagonize countries like Iran and North Korea when it’s O.K. to buy off Libya and Pakistan? Why pursue what even the GOP refers to as the “nuclear option” in the U.S. Senate? To those of us who mainly think squirrel thoughts, these sorts of things will always remain darn near incomprehensible.

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In a comment to my post about the American flag, British blogger Dick Jones of Patteran Pages writes,

I can’t help thinking ‘only in the States…’! I recall (dimly, as with an old man’s fading vision) there being something of fuss when The Who went national with the mod fashion of clothing made out of the Union Jack. But it was no more than a sort of choral clearing of throats from the retired colonel brigade. After that the symbol of Britain’s imperial pride was up for sartorial grabs & has been ever since.

So this sanctification of the Stars & Bars is fascinating & only partially explained by Mr Turner’s characterisation of symbols as both ‘social & normative’ & ‘sensory & affective’ (I bet THAT explanation went down like a cup of cold sick with the second big guy). Further reflections on the cult of the flag from commenters would be illuminating.

I responded by admitting that the U.S.A. is “one of the few countries where one sees the national flag flying everywhere – kind of like the ubiquity of portraits of the Great Leader in places like N. Korea and Turkmenistan.” But I was clueless about the origin of U.S. flagolatry.

So if you have any ideas about how to explain this to a non- or un-American, please leave a comment in the string attached to this post (less confusing than going back to the original flag-burning essay, which is a ways down the page now). Thanks.

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Over at the vernacular body, Elck raises some interesting questions of his own, which directly relate to (and are perhaps partly responsible for) my concern with circuitousness this morning. “Our home, our city, our world, our life is now a supermarket for the satisfaction of the senses,” he writes.

We could binge on Peking Opera if we wished, or read nothing but Uruguayan poets, or fill up our Netflix queues with films from Japan and Japan alone. And, in addition to the available range, there’s also the issue of portability (paperbacks, mp3s, fast downloads), the convenience of mail-order, and the existence of blogs making transglobal stimulating discussion of these interests possible.

This situation creates a number of dilemmas, among them:

We risk finding out the hard way that things too cheaply obtained are poorly attended to. We don’t necessarily take the time to immerse ourselves in the best that culture offers us. For example, how does having a stack of DVDs (or a Netflix queue) affect our experience of a film like Andrei Rublov or Fanny and Alexander? Would we watch the film with different eyes if it were the only thing we had seen on the screen in several months, if the viewing of it were a sacred, set-apart experience, rather than something to be gotten through before popping the next disc in? Is the surfeit of product (even of good product) dulling our senses?

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Even as a plan for satisfying the senses, I think the typically American, consumption-oriented approach falls short. We are taught to be direct and goal-oriented, and not coincidentally, I think, many people complain of being unsatisfied, sexually and otherwise. As K. of A Happening wrote last month in a post called the last taboo,

[W]e live in a culture that … does not know how to appreciate physical beauty unless it’s seen on a playing field. As Americans, we don’t know how to enjoy the naked human form for what it is. Our fear of sex has made it impossible for us to understand the possibilities for variety in sensual experience and in the experience of eros. In our linear thinking, goal-oriented society, if it’s naked we have no idea what [to] do but fuck it. And because most of the time the object laid before our eyes is not really available, we feel compelled to satisfy this desire in some other way. Usually by buying something.

Quite apart from the question of who has the time to sketch, make music, read and write poetry, or what have you, I wonder how many even retain the ability to appreciate the subtler wonders that surround us every day? One of my favorite quotes – and one of the very first things I ever posted on this blog – suggests that this crisis is neither new nor distinctly American. The Baal Shem Tov, 18th-century founder of the Eastern European Hasidic movement, is said to have exclaimed, Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!

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In her latest post, Andi of Ditch the Raft announces, “I’ve decided to become a seeker after Mysteries.” On a recent family visit to Finland, she watched a Lenten mass in Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral.

Once again, I noticed the prostrations. Not so different from a Tibetan half-prostration, the “grand metanoia” came after each congregant had crossed him- or herself. The word “metanoia” means “to turn,” as if turning away from something, such as sin and evil. I like to keep this in mind when I do my own prostrations. I like it, in part because it implies a circular movement within the self, rather than a linear one. We do not progress out of sin, toward sinless-ness. Instead, we are constantly turning within ourselves, seeking the light which guides not necessarily on a straight path, but simply around, like the Zen circle, to our true selves.

For those unfamiliar with Ditch the Raft, it may help to know that Andi is a committed Buddhist (of the Korean Zen variety) and is preparing to enter the monastic life in May. I encourage everyone with an interest in the ostensible focus of this blog, the via negativa, to go read the rest of her post, which includes an illuminating interview with a Greek Orthodox deacon back in the States. I can’t improve on her conclusion.

One other quote from Andi brings us full circle, back to squirrel-mind. This comes from a comment she left in response to a recent post of Dale’s, over at mole. In Today’s catch, Dale shares “some of the weirdly false thoughts I’ve captured on the wing, today… Answering these thoughts is not exactly rocket science,” he writes. “They’re infantile, mostly. Fatuous. My life is being run by thoughts that would do no credit to a six-year-old.” Andi responds:

[It’s] funny how we want to say that the most basic part of us is infantile, or small in some way, when it’s actually the common denominator, the glue of the mind, the mundane fears and worries that underpin so many of our actions. Seeing them as basic is wonderful! – we stumble upon the unhidden truth, that we’re simple at heart, run by things that, the longer we look at them, appear more and more like exaggerated shadows than mountainous objects. Simple fears also mean simple joys, wonderful love over the small things of life, nothing grand: just a beautiful day, a smile from our lovers, the laughter of our children…

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Squirrel-mind excels in the construction of circular nests, or dreys. Winter dreys are more elaborate than those built for summer use. Though they often appear fairly messy from below, they are in fact quite compact and, from all reports, rather cozy. According to The Natural History of Squirrels (John Gurnell, Facts on File Publications, 1987),

They are waterproof and made of an outer coarse layer of interwoven twigs, which the squirrels usually remove from the tree in which the drey is built (often with leaves still attached). There is a softer inner lining consisting of moss, bark, leaves, fur, feathers, lichens and similar material, and dreys which are used by females to rear young tend to be very well-padded…. A squirrel takes from one to several days to construct a drey, and they will maintain it and add to it as and when required.

So this morning was I watching normal nest maintenance, special refurbishment, or something else entirely? The same source refers to the inner bark of several tree species as a food item for squirrels, not just a nesting material, so it’s possible the individual I was watching was simply doing her grocery shopping. In any case, the weather was threatening; it’s now begun to snow. A good time to snuggle deeper into the nest, tail curled over head, and dream of spring. For busy as they may seem, most of what squirrels do during the long, lean months is sleep.

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