Gray squirrel

Surely I was a squirrel in a past life, for as the days get colder, all I want to do is squirrel away provisions, accumulate layers of fat, and hole myself away until Spring.

Oak boughs

All semester, I’ve been eyeing a cantaloupe-sized knothole in one of the sprawling oak trees on the quad at Framingham State. The fifth floor of Hemenway Labs provides an eye-level view of this hole, and I keep hoping to see an owl, raccoon, or other critter peering out of it, as it looks like a perfect animal den.

Gray squirrel in oak tree

Good real estate doesn’t stay empty for long. On Thursday, I watched as first one and then two gray squirrels carried dead oak leaves into this hole, presumably making a nest for the winter. Gray squirrels, I read, often construct multiple nests in their home territory, typically using them as solitary shelter but sometimes sharing a den in cold weather. Apparently even squirrels appreciate cozy companionship when the temperatures drop.

Two squirrels, one mourning dove - Jan 5 / Day 5

This month I’m participating in the Mindful Writing Challenge, which basically means I’m trying to note and record one interesting thing every day, using my Twitter account to post these “small stones.” Noticing and recording one small thing every day sounds easy enough—just open your eyes—but of course, simplicity is never as simple as it seems.

Furry neighbor

I’ve settled into a routine for generating each day’s small stone. In the morning when I take the dogs to our backyard dog-pen and back, I try to notice one interesting thing I can describe in a single arresting image. My walk to the dog-pen is short: from the back door to just beyond the garage. During that short stroll down the sidewalk, across the driveway, and back—something not long enough to count as a proper dog-walk—I watch for birds at the feeder, hawks in the trees, stars in the sky, or anything else that seems noteworthy: something seen in the brief backyard space between here and there.

Feeder raider

Because I’m using Twitter to post my daily stones, I can’t be wordy: instead, I have to boil things down to their essence. On Twitter, I don’t have room to mention how this morning’s squirrels reminded me of other times I’ve seen squirrels romping and chasing; instead, I have to determine what makes this morning’s squirrel-spotting interesting or unusual. What is the kernel of experience that makes this squirrel stand out as remarkable or noteworthy? Specific details, I tell my writing students, are what make your writing believable: you want to capture the essence of “squirreliness” in your description, proving how attentive an observer of squirrel-nature you actually are. You don’t want to describe a squirrel as if you’ve never met one outside a book; you want to describe a squirrel as if you know it.

On the fence

This morning’s squirrels were romping and scurrying, scrambling from all directions down one of our backyard maple trees onto a weathered picket fence, running along the top of it one after another. That was the central image in my head when I crafted this morning’s Tweet: squirrels rapidly converging as if from all directions, scrambling down a bare, branching tree and then chasing one another, one by one, along the top of the fence—one, two, three, four.

On the fence

I just spent an entire paragraph describing this morning’s squirrels running from tree to fence, and I still don’t think I’ve provided an accurate picture. I haven’t mentioned the tail-twitching, the scrabbling claws, or the sharp chits of four squirrels chattering amongst themselves. I also didn’t mention how later, I saw even more squirrels—these same four, I’m guessing, and one or more additional ones—chasing and tumbling in the tall pines that fringe our backyard. Describing one squirrel encounter is difficult enough; describing two is infinitely more complex.

Hawk overhead

Having failed in two paragraphs to describe for you these squirrels, I give up, opting instead to create only the sketchiest of outlines: a Tweet that implies more than two paragraphs of prose could ever tell. When I craft each day’s Tweet, I first notice something as I’m taking the dogs out and in, out and in. Then I think about that noticed thing while I’m washing the previous night’s dishes, rinsing the recycling, and taking out the trash. Given what I saw, what can I say about it? Only then do I actually try to commit words to paper, except there’s no paper involved. Instead, I log into Twitter on my iPod Touch, then I skim a few Tweets before typing a short, condensed description of what I saw, ignoring how many characters I’m using and only trying to describe one central image that might express or explain the whole experience.

Gray squirrel with walnut

I do this with my thumbs because that’s how you type on an iPod Touch, as if you were texting on a phone. I never thought I’d use my thumbs to compose miniature bits of nature writing based on things I see in my suburban backyard, but I’m finding my Touch to be a perfect compositional tool for the simple reason that I don’t have to turn on my laptop to use it. Before I’ve written my morning journal pages much less turned on my laptop for the day’s work, I’ve composed the first draft of my daily Tweet, which I then whittle and hone so it fits Twitter’s 140-character limit. This act of winnowing words is what makes such Twittering useful to me as a writer: a daily exercise in concision. When you don’t have room for all your words, you pare down to your best words. This and this and this, and not a jot or tittle more.

This morning’s result? A single sentence that took me five minutes to get just so:

Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.