A squirrel tale: A chance encounter offers a reflection on the importance of play

By Ron Weber | February 1, 2022

  • Squirrel in the snow

(Courtesy of Flickr)

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I opened my jacket as I walked, odd for mid-winter, but the warmth of a January thaw was welcome. I decided to grab a quick snack as it was pushing noon.

Munching on mixed nuts, I caught a glimpse of movement up ahead. A gray squirrel — a portly fellow who looked as though he had taken his task of fattening up for winter seriously — entered stage left. He rummaged through the softening snow until he reached a large basswood and promptly scurried into the treetop. My eyes followed him from one branch to the next passing into a neighboring ash.

By the next tree, I had joined the squirrel on his journey. I scanned the branches ahead trying to anticipate our next move. Though a few times I got it right, my guide often had other ideas. I trusted his judgment on such things, so on we went.

The fifth treetop looked like the end of the line. A 2-foot gap stood between him and the next tree. That appeared to be the least of our problems. The closest branches on each tree looked like they would have a hard time supporting a chickadee, much less a 2-pound squirrel. It was a fun ride while it lasted.

I imagine in squirrel school pupils learn that traveling in the treetops is safer than on the ground where predators await from there and above. The curriculum, I would hope, must also cover the physics and limitations of treetop travel.

Much to my surprise, or shall I say horror, he started shimmying out onto the branch. He then laid out flat like someone trying to get off thin ice and began inching forward. Then much to my delight, with the flick of his tail he backed up and got onto a thicker part of the branch. I thought he had finally come to his senses, but in a flash he simply dropped down to a lower part of the same branch and again crawled toward the end. I knew then he had no intention of backing away from this challenge.

He was going to jump.

Sir Isaac Newton clearly stated in his third law of motion that, “For every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force.” I had seen this demonstrated many times, most applicable to this situation by a friend who tried to jump from our boat onto the dock — but as he pushed off the boat, the boat moved further away from the dock and he came up short and in the drink.

I was hoping my new found friend hadn’t slept through science class and missed learning this important tenet of science from the headmaster squirrel.

In an instant he was in midair. He sailed across the chasm grabbing the thin branch of the next tree. The branch swung down and like Tarzan on a vine, he rode the branch forward — letting go at the perfect time, his momentum carrying him to a sturdy part of the branch.

A human pulling off such a feat would be jumping up and down and taking a selfie. My buddy, without a bow, tail wag or paw pump kept right on going. Two more treetops and he reached an oak in which an uprooted basswood was wedged. He used this to make his way back to terra firma.

I was back down now, too, and with a flick of his tail as if to say goodbye, he exited stage right. After watching so many animals, I know fun and play are important to them. I want to believe that other than the practical reason of safe travel, he had gone on this journey for the fun of it. I was glad he had taken me along.

Ron Weber

Ron Weber

Ron Weber is a Wisconsin DNR Forester living in Weyerhaeuser. He writes outdoor essays for several Wisconsin publications.
2022-02-01T11:51:44-06:00Tags: , , , , , |

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