On the business of survival

We woke to slate grey skies and helterskelter leaves flapping violently on their twigs in the trees. Jenna and I had been having a celebratory post-MCAT sleep over (complete with sticky buns, Oreos, Tarzan, and the Office) and as she rolled over to check her phone, her eyes got wide.

“There’s a tornado warning!” she announced. “The storms hit in a couple of hours.”

I threw a onesie on the baby, and out we dashed to get the second half of our garden planted before the rain came.

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Purveyor of the garden

Since then, we’ve spent the day snuggled into bed, watching rain pellet down from the sky and the leaves do their endless dance. And watching the squirrels.  In fact, I have become fully absorbed in watching the squirrels.

There’s a silver maple outside our bedroom window, and the squirrels have been busy at work within it–hanging upside down at rakish angles as they eat the helicopter seeds, perching like gargoyles on top of the broken off branch closest to our house, and occasionally flicking water off of their little paws.

At first I felt bad for them. Here I was, sitting with a warm baby on my lap and my feet tucked under the covers and a delectable breakfast sandwich perched on the bedstand next to me. And there they were–a mere ten feet away, blasted by the wind and the rain, caught up in the business of survival.

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Can you spot the daredevil squirrel?

But the more I watched them, the more it became clear that they were far too busy eating those (apparently) delicious maple helicopters to feel sorry for themselves (can squirrels feel sorry for themselves?). I’d dare say they were even enjoying themselves–scurrying from branch to branch. Giving the occasional delighted shake to rid themselves of excess moisture. Hanging upside down at absurd angles to munch their treats.

And it struck me that to them, foraging for sustenance in the cold, driving rain with a potential tornado looming in the storm clouds might not feel like carving out a grim existence on the knife’s edge of survival–the way it might to me.

But that they were evolved for situations like these. Heck, the way the youngest squirrel lifted its face into the wind after doing a particularly bold inversion on a flimsy branch looked downright gleeful. It was just doing what squirrels do during this time of year.

They weren’t caught up in some battle for survival any more than I was–sitting in my bed, doing the things that humans do on stormy days.

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From a human perspective, it was hard not to feel bad for the squirrels when I contrasted their reality to mine–which was this cozy scene. But this combo probably is actually a squirrel’s worst nightmare. 

It was an interesting thought for me, and I’ve continued to chew on it. Each species has a different blueprint for how to survive. For us, it’s huddling indoors during bad weather. For squirrels, it’s enjoying a wild ride on a tree branch, hanging upside, until it’s bad enough that you go hide in the hole you chewed in the trunk.

But for all of us, it’s just business as usual, living out our distinct evolutionary inheritance for how to survive.

It further struck me that our survival is so far removed from actual survival–it’s so wrapped up in convenience–that we’re destroying the planet. In our desire to make life as easy as possible, we now hold jobs where we sit on our butts (if we are lucky) and are paid currency so that we can pay other people to give us goods and services so that we can sit on our butts some more. We no longer use our limbs to move from place to place unless we’re exercising or recreating. We no longer grow or sometimes even cook our own food. We no longer make our own shelter or clothing.

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We try to be involved directly in our survival via hunting and gardening.

We have to consume so much–fossil fuels, materials shipped from all over the world, water) in order to survive in our society, that the planet can’t sustain us all.

Maybe the squirrels have the right of it after all.

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