There's no business like squirrel business

Sudden shadows across the living room floor catch my attention. I look up from work and notice that the huge tree branch that shades my front window is surging with a violent up-and-down momentum. My first thought is "hurricane," since I've never seen a tree in such throes before. But, no. All else is quiet outside.

I move closer, so I can look down from my third-story window. Perhaps tree-trimmers are at work. But there are none, and the arrhythmic wrenchings continue.

Finally, I tune out visually - stop trying to see something - and am merely present. At the edge of my vision I catch a peculiar flurry concentrated at the tip of a tiny branch, among a cluster of pale green leaves that extend into an equally pale blue sky. Then a sudden puff of gray among the green tells me it's a squirrel.

Apparently, the little creature has ventured so far out on the branch that it has no support, not even for its few ounces of substance. And while I've seen squirrels leap from branch to branch, there is nowhere for this one to go - the branch overhangs a driveway.

The frenzy among the leaves goes on for a while. I don't have to imagine what the squirrel is feeling - it's being transmitted the full length of the branch to the trunk. And then the storm lessens, the surge calms, and I see a little whisper of gray threading its way along the branch toward the trunk.

For almost two years I've been surrounded on three sides by trees. The squirrels who inhabit their branches have come and gone without distinction, except to abandon their search for nuts in the underbrush whenever I've come out. They have no coexistence with humans.

The following winter, over the holidays, I'm with friends. From their back windows I watch a cluster of birds flapping about a bell of seeds and suet that hangs from the clothesline. A few manage to chase off the rest and perch on the bell until they are sated. Then the others come. There's enough for all of them, but they repeat the pecking order every morning.

When the birds have had their fill, three squirrels emerge cautiously from the trees up the hill at the back of the property. I can't see their feet for the depth of the snow, so they seem to undulate across the white expanse, tails held high in a regal pavane.

They form a little circle, look around with quick twists of the head, and begin to root among the seeds that have fallen into the snow beneath the birds' bell. Once or twice my movements at the window have spooked them and sent them skittering for cover. They don't return until they think I've left the window.

"Look!"

The command stops me. It's a sunny summer morning, a rare one without heat.

The command is addressed to a child. On the broad expanse of walkway leading from the busy street into the plaza, a white-haired man with a toddler in a stroller points at the trunk of a large tree.

Suddenly there is a scritching behind the trunk, and a little head with two beady wide-set eyes peers around at us. A little gray form with a big puffy tail circles the trunk and rushes down to the cedar chips at the foot of the tree. It watches us and then turns and streaks back up the trunk a couple feet, only to turn again and hang there.

It must be stuck, I think. Perhaps its hind claws are caught in the bark. I feel that all-too-human urge to reach out and help. But before thought becomes foolish action, the squirrel touches down and begins to dig up dirt and cedar chips, finally locating something to nibble on.

As the man tells me the dark-haired little girl is his granddaughter and he is from Albania, the squirrel is again running up and down the trunk. It lands, reaches around for its tail, and turns into a ball that somersaults across the grass - four, five, six times.

The squirrel unwinds, sits up, and then scampers toward us, where it sits hunkered on its hind legs with its little forepaws extended.

This is no wild squirrel, I think. It's a little comedian standing there, front and center, enjoying our laughter and expecting a handout. We have nothing, however. It looks down at a long, thin twig, a little more than a foot in length, and then takes it up with one paw. I think I can read its thoughts: Shall I somersault over this? No. It drops the twig and goes back to digging in the chips for food. Show's over.

And so the people bid each other farewell and go their separate ways.

After work, a friend and I bike across the Charles River to Cambridge. We take Massachusetts Avenue most of the way, and we've got our eyes open for cars during the going-home commute. When we finally turn into Harvard Yard, we breathe more easily - until we spot a little gray patch in the center of the leaf-dappled bike path.

As we come closer, we see it's a squirrel busily grooming itself. It's too busy even to notice us. We break formation - so we won't scare it into our wheels - and pass to either side of it.

The squirrel ignores us and continues his grooming.

I'm hurrying down the airport corridor. My departure gate has just been changed, and I need to sprint. And then I see it - something strangely familiar but wholly out of context. I have to stop and take it in: There, on the wall in a huge poster, is a squirrel that appears to be sitting on a white tablecloth, watching a woman eat.

It's the cheeky look and the audacious pose - upright, forepaws extended - that holds my attention. Clearly, someone else has caught the essence of squirrel and taken it to the limit. Either that, or squirrels are taking over. I just catch my flight.

"It's too late in the season for squirrels," one city-dwelling lady says to another as I pass the other day.

The squirrel that greets me as I round the next corner doesn't know that.

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