The house, on the outside, looked the same as all the others: Victorian, lightly painted, shelved in a neat row of similarly picturesque homes along a steep San Francisco incline. The house had belonged to Don, who was no longer living. My friend fumbled with the lock on the front door; after some jiggling, we stumbled inside, our bags sliding to the wooden floor with a soft thunk.
Don had been a family friend of Meredith’s, who had arranged for us all to stay in his house while we were visiting the city. Meredith came from an artsy, intellectual family, so I wasn’t surprised to see hand-painted art posters and scrapbooks scattered throughout the house of one of her parents’ closest friends. What I was not expecting were the squirrels.
They weren’t real squirrels, but they were realer than real squirrels. They were the romantic idea of squirrels: paintings of squirrels, vintage black-and-white photographs of squirrels, squirrel-themed calendars, miniature wood carvings of squirrels, stylized text quotations about squirrels. And nuts. Lots of nuts. Nuts in bowls, polished acorns on the bookshelves, rubbings of oak leaves done in charcoal. It was as though I had stepped foot in the home of a woodland creature from one of those lovingly illustrated children’s picture books, and all the squirrel images on the walls were portraits of its family members. Except Don was (as far as I know) human, or at least he lived in a human-sized house.
Now I have to confess that while I am on the whole a lover of animals, there has always been somewhat of a friction between squirrels and myself. It isn’t exactly animosity; you could call it something like a rivalry. Here you might protest that a relationship between a human and a squirrel can’t possibly be equal enough for it to be defined as a rivalry, but the flaw in your argument lies in the fact that I have, probably since birth, been a bird person (no hyphen). I am unflinching in my loyalty to birds of all species. And as an ally, supporter and occasionally defender of the avian class, I felt it my duty to harbor at least some minor suspicion towards the family known as Sciuridae, mostly on behalf of the small backyard passerines who always seemed to be in fisticuffs with them at the bird feeders (they’re called bird feeders for a reason!).
My commitment to the birds aside, I have also had a few hostile squirrel encounters of my own. Once, I was practicing driving in the parking lot of my old elementary school when a giant squirrel began scurrying across the pavement. I braked and waited for the squirrel to reach the sidewalk. Instead of continuing, though, the squirrel just stopped in the middle of the road. Slowly, I inched the car forward; nothing happened. I finally honked my horn. The squirrel turned and looked me dead in the eye. Even through the windshield, I could feel the intensity of its cold, empty stare. I don’t even remember what happened after that. I certainly didn’t run it over; I may have attempted to go around it. Perhaps it ran away eventually. I don’t know, and I don’t want to think about it.
I know countless others who have been personally victimized by squirrels, especially the ones that roam college campuses (which are truly another breed — my friend swears she’s seen one drinking out of a red Solo cup). The point is, in the current political climate, squirrel-human relations are quite fraught. To enter a house that was essentially a monument to the squirrel ideology was a bit of a culture shock, if you could call it that.
And yet there was something comforting about it. Something familiar, in the same way that the colored pencil forests in those picture books felt familiar. This person I’d never known was so dedicated to these creatures that he felt compelled to decorate his entire home as an expression of his love and admiration for them. In the kitchen, photographs of a squirrel being hand-fed popcorn stood next to an empty bowl. I wondered what other treats the bowl might have held: peanuts, grapes, pecans, sunflower seeds, slices of pumpkin. It reminded me of when I’d feed seagulls at the beach, tossing fries into the air and watching the birds swoop down in complex aerial maneuvers to catch them. Usually whenever I recounted doing this, people would look at me like I was crazy — they couldn’t understand why I’d expose my food to the thieving gulls, much less give it to them freely. Or why I’d get so excited whenever I saw a murder of crows, or why I took offense when people referred to pigeons as “rats with wings.” “Pigeons are intelligent and clean and cute,” I would complain. Then again, wouldn’t a rodent lover say the same about rats?
I thought about how Don might respond if someone insulted squirrels to his face. Maybe he would retort something scathing and witty. Maybe he would remain silent. Maybe he would shrug, a shrug that indicated years of experience with squirrel-belittling people who didn’t understand, knowing there was nothing he could do to change their minds. I’ve been there. But I’ve also learned that the world isn’t just made up of you and a few billion people who don’t get it. You will always be able to find the people that do.
My friend and I moved a spare mattress to the floor for us to sleep on that night. The blankets were patterned with autumn leaves: oak, maple, poplar, hickory. It felt cozy. I never had the privilege of meeting Don while he was alive, but those nights we stayed in his home, I felt like I knew him, just a little bit. At the very least, I knew that this was someone who loved deeply and wasn’t ashamed to show it. This house was a reflection of the purest kind of love, one that expected nothing in return. Despite being in enemy territory, as a bird ally in a refuge for squirrels, I felt safe. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt as though I were in a sanctuary not only for squirrels, but for us, keeping us warm and protected, asking nothing of us in exchange.
Maybe one day, when I have my own place, I’ll put up paintings of birds and hang calendars with a different species of pigeon for each month. I’ll fill up bowls with nuts and seeds and step outside every morning to feed the passerines. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll let the squirrels have their share.