You know it's cold when you need to scrape the ice off the inside of your car windows. That's how cold it's been this week. And last week. And the week before that.
This afternoon I got home from the gym to find a squirrel dying in our front yard. It had managed to climb most of the way up a wooden trellis that stands between our house and the house next door, on its way to some tall tree branches. The squirrel was gray with dark brown speckles on its back, and a thin, droopy tail. It held a light-colored shell of something between its teeth, but its back legs kept giving way, and it lost its balance. To hold onto the trellis, it had to let go of the shell, which meant turning around and climbing back toward the ground. No use climbing all the way up the tree without food.
The squirrel was either injured or partially frozen. I checked the temperature when I later went inside -- it was 14 degrees with a wind chill of 3. At what temperature do squirrels start to suffer?
As soon as it reached the ice-covered ground, it paused, looking defeated, and then it fell over. From the front porch, I gasped. I think I actually clutched at my throat. Since winter started, the squirrels have been acting funny. They've been bolder and braver and a touch desperate, coming within a foot or two of a person, just to get a seed or something. Just after Thanksgiving, a fat one chased me down the sidewalk. I didn't think I could handle finding an actually dead squirrel in the yard, especially not one I had seen in pain while alive.
"Get the shell!" I said out loud. "You can do it!"
The squirrel righted itself and scampered around the base of the trellis, searching for something it could take back up the tree. Its back legs kept buckling and slipping to the side, which, as it walked, made it look sort of like a drunk person trying unsuccessfully to walk in a straight line. It trembled, its front paws especially shaky, and again it tumbled over.
I almost ran inside to tear up the last of the bread that was slowly going stale in our kitchen, but then I gave myself a silent lecture on the dangers of human intervention. "This is what happens in nature in the winter," I told myself, "this is what's supposed to happen."
The squirrel failed to find the shell. Instead it turned to look at the street.
"No!" I shouted. "Don't do it! You won't make it!"
The squirrel didn't listen. Luckily the roads were still bad from two days of winter storms, and the traffic on our street was thin. You know how squirrels leap and scamper? Imagine that, but in excruciatingly slow motion. Each time it landed on its way across the road, I could almost see it wince. This squirrel was making its last stand.
I watched as it reached the driveway across the street, then it paused under a parked car. As I waited to see what it would do next, I thought about all of the dramas that play out in this urban wilderness -- where people and cars and domesticated animals aren't the main players, but the backdrop, a few unnatural predators to avoid. Even here, in the middle of a small city, where concrete, bricks and asphalt far outnumber trees and grass, nature finds ways to take hold.
Our house is in a densely populated neighborhood, with yards the size of postage stamps and only a few feet between buildings. Before we moved in, our house had been vacant for several months. And we soon discovered that nature had started taking over, as if the natural parts (wood beams, wood floors) of this human-made building were being called home. Things -- who knows what -- were living in the walls. Centipedes and spiders had started colonies. Part of me felt bad about cleaning it all out -- the part that liked the idea of nature fighting back and reclaiming what is hers.
The squirrel emerged from under the car and made its way up the driveway. I watched until I could only see the tip of its tail. It was gone. And then I went inside.