Messing with Mr. T

It's not that I don't love small animals. I think I do. Every other evening, in fact, after dinner, I have been reading a chapter of Watership Downm to my wife - a book loaded with small and loveable rabbits. Even as a boy I remember patiently raising a rabbit named Bunno. Bunno only bit me once. And, looking back, I think this was because he thought my finger to be a carrot. Today I feel certain that I carry around no sublimated grudges against Bunno.

No, the problem is that I never really see any small animals anymore, rabbits or otherwise. Like many Americans, I live in the city now - and there are scant few of the charming variety of wildlife in the city. So it is easy to forget them, midst the ''din and craft of the street,'' and to forget about appreciating them. With a busy life of telephones, typewriters, jackhammers, and dinners out, one simply forgets about the lives lived by rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, possumms, ducks. And, oh yes, little Tamias striatusm, the chipmunk.

My hiatus from the animal kingdom abated briefly though, when we recently visited the backwood wilds of Wisconsin. My good wife, in the spirit of St. Francis, casually packed a bag of unshelled peanuts big enough to gorge several circus tents full of elephants. The idea, as I recalled while lugging the bag, was to meet the chipmunk population of eastern Wisconsin on its own terms, using a language it could understand - namely, the peanut, that benign and versatile fruitlet of the soil.

Before we actually left the city, my wife took it upon herself to teach me the chipmunk call (''H-e-ere . . .chippa chippa chippa chippa. . .chipe-e-e-e!m ''). And I was also told of childhood chipmunks tame enough to climb into her pants pocket for a peanut. ''That's interesting,'' I said, signalling the waiter for a check. ''Mildly interestingm,'' I said to myself, enjoying her enthusiasm more than any thought of the chipmunk of yore.

Once in Wisconsin, after dealing out some preliminary peanuts, we found our acre of the state gerrymandered primarily by one chipmunk - ''Chipper,'' we hastily and unimaginatively called him. Chipper set a standard for compact cuteness. His very beingm - miniature with racing stripes, determined, bright of eye, countenance, and movement - was a plea for our mercies and ministries.

How could we not comply? Winter urgings had Chipper quite beside himself. Our planet was busy changing its orbital position, and Chipper's nose was busy exploring for suspect peanuts under every leaf in sight. This was the time of year tiny, dextrous paws handled and packed an extra peanut into already comically overstocked cheek pouches. Then, zang-zing-zip. . . Poofm! No Chipper. But he'd be back, cheeks unloaded, except, perhaps, for a slight bulge, indicating that on the way he had found the nut we'd balanced on top of a mushroom.

After some initial fear, Chipper found us trustworthy. To a point. Woo as we might, there would be no climbing into the pockets of these humans that towered over him, as a twelve story building might tower over you and me. (To get a feeling for Chipper's mettle, consider switching places with him, considering especially that some of us ''skyscrapers'' are hostile.) Our attempts at furthering our friendship, in fact, almost led me to be bodily dragged off into the forest by this singular, mighty Tamias striatusm. I had been wedging peanuts between my toes, hoping, eventually, he would freely climb my leg. But instead of taking the nut, now featured on my ankle, Mr.T circled my foot, shark-like. Then, boldly, he stepped up to one of my ''unshelled'' toes, gently but firmly clamped his Chipper jaws around it, and proceeded tugging - trying to take it with him to his burrow, presumably to feast on it mid-January. My response was the response of one who has just shaken hands with a mad lobster.

Don't I carry on though! I write about Chipper as though he were our vacation's main event. To be honest, while we were there I didn't think about him much at all. Compared with canoing, fishing, swimming, hiking, reading and all the rest, he was only a little side attraction - part of a very large and rich new enviornment. Cute, yes he was, but not a commanding presence.

So I should think, cruising at 15,000 feet above sea level on the way back home, with the massive quiltwork landscape and a couple million trees spread out in all directions beneath us and the incomparable pale pale blue of the forever sky, I should think if someone were to ask me about Wisconsin, Chipper would not have been mentioned. But who can always say why we think or feel what we do, though? At 15,000 feet, I got Chipper Awareness. Here I was, whisking along in a modern jetliner, letting my thoughts wander, and they persisted settling on a single chipmunk, now very far behind our billowy contrail. If I had spotted a chipmunk the size of a Boeing 747 flying through the clouds right beside us, I wouldn't have been more surprised. Chipper Awarenessm? What? I shrugged the whole thing off as a matter of altitude, and picked up a book.

Yet, late that evening, after getting reaquainted with the city, I thought of this chipmunk again. Snug in bed in my little room, just before falling asleep, I suddenly thought of Chipper. It was dark in Wisconsin now too, and he must be dry and snug in his own little brown earthen apartment, fifty well-earned peanuts stacked along every wall, reaching high above his head. Across thousands of miles, across corn fields and wheat, across the Great Lakes and great humming highways, Chipper was thereSm There, across the land in eastern Wisconsin, near a certain river, under a certain tree, a certain specific chipmunk was resting after a busy day. An amazing thought! A thought not only of the immensity of creation, but also of the distinctnessm of creation. Creation, alive everywhere with the sweat and song of every individual bird, tree, and. . .chipmunk.

''Wow,'' I thought to myself. And then, despite the logic of the world, I could feel from this small creature a greater appreciation for every pair of eyes in the vast forests and oceans of this little planet. How many do you suppose there are?

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