The Wisdom of Squirrels

Taking a Leap of Faith


As part of an application process to get into a creative writing class in college, the professor gave us the following prompt: "Taking a leap of faith." She asked us to spend the next 20 minutes writing about this phrase and whatever words we handed her at the end of the alloted time would be the criteria she would use to determine who was accepted into the class.

A view of Mt Adams

I hate on-demand writing. I can't do it. At least not well. And, we were in one of the least inspiring rooms on campus-- the windowless basement of the library with bare white-washed walls and flickering florescent lights. If I was going to produce anything worthwhile, I knew I needed to leave this room. So I promptly left the classroom in search of a writing spot with a little more distraction.

Ever since high school, when I would write my papers out on the side porch of the house where I could watch the world go by, I have found that just the right kind of distraction can be quite a stimulus for good writing. In that dark library basement, I found a cushy arm chair facing a window, figured the view outside would suffice given the circumstances and sat down. I then stared out the window waiting for something to come.

The library we were in was built on a hill. This meant that while you entered at the front of the building to the ground floor, if you walked to the back you would find yourself staring down at the top of trees. So from my cushy basement window chair, I was at eye level with the canopy of the maple trees outside. Most perfect for being distracted. Instead of stressing about writing about this silly prompt, I blissfully watched the squirrels scamper up and down and all throughout the branches of the maples.

Helping a goat kid find his mom's teat

There were two squirrels, as I recall, that distracted me that afternoon. They seemed to be enjoying a game of tag, for one would scamper up the trunk and then twist to run out on the limb. As the branch bent under his weight, he would jump to the limb of the adjacent tree. The second squirrel would follow in hot pursuit. At some point they would switch who was chasing who, and the sequence would start all over again.

I sat there watching, periodically looking over my shoulder to the clock on the wall, and resigning myself to the reality that I just wasn't going to hand in anything to the professor. It would be easy enough for me to just finish watching the squirrels and then leave. No harm done.

As I watched the little squirrel bodies move so deftly and swiftly through what must, even for them, feel like a precarious work and play environment, I began to wonder, how it is that they learned to jump from branch to branch? Did they go to branch-jumping school for squirrels? Were they afraid of falling? Did they ever fall?

Then, finally, the window seat redeemed itself, for I began writing about the faith we hold in our muscles and tendons, in our eye-hand coordination and physical experiences that enable us to take leaps of faith from one branch to the next. Not knowing for certain that the branch will hold, or that our body can make the distance, but nevertheless we jump. Because like the squirrels, we don't want to be confined to the same tree our whole lives, and its just too labor intensive to go the long way around and even then certainty of outcome is not guaranteed. So we jump, we take a leap of faith, because we must.

Home-grown peppers

I was notified later that week that I was accepted into the class. By that time, I had decided to take geology instead.

But those little squirrels have stuck with me in the intervening years. Living in an oak forest, I have frequent occasion to watch the squirrels scamper and climb and jump and land. Not to mention devour lettuce and broccoli starts or the bark on sapling chestnut trees. But, not once have I seen a squirrel fall. Not once. I hope that this changes. Not because I have any malign thoughts towards these acrobatic geniuses, but more because it would be more fitting for such leaps of faith to occasionally fall, tender and earnest, to the ground. For, if I listen to the apparent wisdom of the squirrels, I'd come to the conclusion that the branch will always hold, that our feet will always find grip, that we will always judge the distance just right.

When it comes to my body and to my life, I know that I am fallible. I know the branch doesn't always hold and that my feet sometimes slip out from under me and I come falling to the ground, sometimes gracefully but more often not. I am, however, continually confused by the knowledge that seems to come from nowhere other than the regenerative marrow of my bones of what it is I must do.

I often feel as though I am seeking something I once knew, like a dream that leaves me filled with vague impressions of something that once was, but with little indication of how to get back there or what it is even that I would be looking for in the first place.

Charlie-dog Sniffing a Hollowed-out Log

I am guided, perhaps more than most, by my understanding of the underlying principles that govern this earthly home of ours and a deep desire to learn ever more. But such scientific principles do not create imperatives, they simply provide information and observations. Rather, something that lives deep inside me creates the need to respond, the need to act. Perhaps it is the wild instinct, the instinct to seek pleasure, avoid pain, survive and, if possible, thrive.

I am sometimes caught off guard by the need, the urge really, to respond. Anger sometimes wells up from a reverie of love; charges of strength sometimes rise out of what may seem like hopeless impossibilities; creative spurts can swell up from the least fertile ground.

This is when I leap. I leap to the branch that may seem a little too far out of reach but holds hope of bearing the fruit I seek. I know all too well that no one can guarantee that I land or that the branch will hold, or even that I will find what I am looking for. But I leap because I must. For the consequences of staying put, in stagnant air or toxic ground, are far too great. The light in my eyes dims, the blood in my veins thickens and slows, I lose a piece of myself that I cannot afford to lose-- the wild love, the fierce responsiveness. So instead, I choose to take the risk.

Exploring Swale Canyon
Choosing to step outside the consumer-driven world that so many call home, choosing to live closely with the land, choosing to create a tribe with whom we can love and laugh and live and cry and work and create our own Eden, choosing to invest our life energy, our hearts and our passion into a life where we own the fruits of our labors and how we spend our time is not at odds with our own happiness, choosing to humble oneself enough to actually listen to the lessons the land has to teach-- these are all leaps of faith.

There are no guarantees. Ever. Except perhaps that you will run up against some form of hardship and some form of bliss. But still, we must eke out the path forward. For our fears are often the voices of the ones who try to keep us small, the voices of the ones that don't want us to fulfill our potential for greatness, the ones that look back at us when we look into the mirror.

But its time to take that leap of faith. There is little time for waiting, for the limb we are on is bending, bending, bending, and for the sake of our own humanity we need to take that leap.