Between a Rock and a Red Squirrel

Something made me stop, look and take a picture of this rock:

Rock, Thrunton Wood, Northumberland

Undoubtedly the oldest thing within sight; the most ancient and venerable presence gracing this particular patch of Thrunton Wood in Northumberland, it emanated a strong sense of look-at-me… be aware. Its solidity was a grounding of Time. An anchor, of sorts, for the ephemeral.

That was back in the summer of 2006. Now – gradually, gradually through more recent days – I’ve been treading my way through David Abrams’ visceral and deeply grounding book Becoming Animal – An Earthly Cosmology.

Becoming Animal - An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (hardback edition - published by Pantheon Books)

Becoming Animal – An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (hardback edition – published by Pantheon Books)

Reading it is like placing your feet on the earth, following the tracery of the words through the landscape, tracking the signs and signals of the senses.

In Wood and Stone, the third chapter of Becoming Animal, David Abram describes the feeling ancient rock evokes. Of how cleaved folds of stone speak to something primal in ourselves:

‘A solitary rock or a clear-cut stump is utterly inanimate only as long as “being” itself is taken to be static and inert. Our animal senses, however, know no such passive reality………. To my animal body, the rock is first and foremost another body engaged in the world: as I turn my gaze toward it, I encounter not a defined and inanimate chunk of matter but an upturned surface basking in the sun’s warmth, or a pink and sharp-edged structure protruding from the ground like the shattered bone of the hillside, or an old and watchful guardian of this land – a resolute and sheltering presence inviting me now to crouch and lean my spine against it.

Each thing organizes the space around it, rebuffing or sidling up against other things; each thing calls, gestures, beckons to other beings or battles them for our attentions; things expose themselves to the sun or retreat among the shadows, shouting with their loud colors or whispering with their seeds; rocks snag lichen spores from the air and shelter spiders under their flanks; clouds converse with the fathomless blue and metamorphose into one another; they spill rain upon the land, which gathers in rivulets and carves out canyons………. Things “catch our eye” and sometimes refuse to let go; they “grab our focus” and “capture our attention,” and finally release us from their grasp only to dissolve back into the overabundant world. Whether ecstatic or morose, exuberant or exhausted, everything swerves and trembles; anguish, equanimity, and pleasure are not first internal moods but passions granted to us by the capricious terrain.’

…And look who “grabbed our focus,” emerging from the knotty, silent moment when the rock made us stand still:

Roe doe - out from the undergrowth... Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

Roe doe – out from the undergrowth… Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

A glimpse of red – and of wary tolerance. A recognition and appreciation of stillness. Rock-steady watching; a pact of grace:

Roe doe - "capturing attention"

Roe doe – “capturing attention”

And, beyond that; another still, cautious moment of red – a blur of red squirrel. The first any of us had ever seen in the wild:

Red squirrel, Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

Red squirrel, Thrunton Wood, Northumberland, 2006

My daughter was nine years old at the time. Standing beneath that tree – delight and concentration rooted in her small, slight frame – she thought of all the times she’d seen red squirrels in books or on TV. All the wishes she had made. All those “what-ifs” that had seeded in her mind.

“Oooh!” she exclaimed moments later, as the woods released us from our still, silent encounters. “Dreams do sometimes come true!”

And quietly, quietly, her pleased astonishment at this small, red, earthy revelation – a gift from the ‘capricious terrain’ – sealed the moment rock solid in her memory.

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16 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Red Squirrel

    • It’s beautiful isn’t it. I love it too – it’s got such presence. I love to focus on rocks as part of my wildlife walks. They’re so fascinating in their own right – and tell you so much about a landscape and its history; provide habitat for so much life (lichens, insects, reptiles etc) – and really spark the imagination too!

      Thanks for your comment – and good luck with your future career in geology!

  1. To see one’s humanity in the still, natural things can be a revelation. The words and thoughts that come out of this vision are thrilling.

    When I was camping with Boyfriend, I awoke – early – to the sound of galloping. I thought sleepily to myself, ‘what a random time to go horseback riding’. I then realized that it was a deer, running so close to us that I could hear/feel its hooves digging into the earth. And it remains just like a dream.

    • Thank you, Aubrey, for these lovely, meditative words… Reading them created such an immediate sense of the dream-like moment you describe. Once experienced, such moments linger long – and keep on transforming in so many subtle and inspiring ways… Thanks again for sharing here the lasting echoes, and deep impression, left by such a powerfully fleeting, wild encounter…

  2. Had a magical red squirrel moment last summer walking into Grasmere – he stopped on the path in front of us, quite relaxed and then nipped into a tree to observe in comfort. It’s an amazing thing seeing a creature so rare yet so familiar from books and stories (the Beatrix Potter film where the squirrels rowed over the lake in mist?): I think my partner was probably moved in the same way as your daughter, telling the next group of walkers coming up the hill and the bookshop owner – they were sadly a little unmoved! This hasn’t stopped red squirrels becoming iconic here: there’s the book by Axel Scheffler ‘How to Keep a Red Squirrel’ (he drew suitable illustrations for a ridiculous guide to keeping squirrels from a 1910 encyclopedia for children); a squirrel nightlight turned up from Germany which was more like a demonic monster (can’t describe what it was like switched on). No shortage of squirrel-themed presents out there!

    Becoming Animal looks wonderful – it has gone straight into the top ten of the ‘list’… there was a series called ‘Children of the Stones’ I remember, very atmospheric and set near Avebury, probably a little ropey now. And Quatermass. And a barking mad film with Beryl Reid I remember too which featured 1970s bikers and a stone circle. Just a quick WhistlesintheWind tour of irrelevant stones-related TV there, apologies. Will save deeper thoughts for a post!

    • Ooh! I do love a good WhistlesintheWind tour – no need to apologise; send as many this way as you like! My thanks for this one which is, as ever, full of all sorts of fascinating old-curiosity-shop-type gems and finds. I didn’t know about the Axel Scheffler red squirrel book (will look that up) – and my mind is now busy drawing pictures of the indescribable, scary squirrel nightlight! I remember Children of the Stones. Not much about the story – just pictures in my mind of the scenes and Avebury – and a lasting impression of atmosphere. There often seems to be an enticingly eccentric mood/ linkage that emerges both in the contemplation of stones and red squirrels, doesn’t there – a kind of mix of freedom, rootedness and character…

      Really lovely to hear about your magical red squirrel encounter in the Lake District… What a great moment! I don’t know who was most excited that day when we first saw a red squirrel, my daughter or me – and the whole experience was extra special because it dovetailed into watching her delight, and loving that it meant so much to her. Like your partner, I’ve sometimes met with similarly underwhelmed responses from other folk to what, to me, were hugely momentous wildlife watching events. Either they’re not interested or don’t recognise the significance – or are maybe so familiar with the species in question, it’s just an ordinary, daily experience to them (I’ve never really understood becoming that jaded though; the magic always seems to renew itself every time…) I’ve got another, more recent, red squirrel encounter to relate here on the blog sometime… At least I know that here, folk appreciate the impact of the occasion!

      Looking forward to that further deeper thoughts post!

  3. Wow Melanie… so heartgrippingly powerful, your words, photos and David Abram’s together. Thank you. One day, someday, I hope to become as prolific and generous a reader and sharer of such treasures as you!

    Occasionally, not often enough, I play a game with trees when out and about. Just the other day in fact, while waiting for a bus and pondering how my ‘waiting’ time could be beneficial and full in itself rather than just waiting for the next ‘useful’ moment… I stand near a tree and attempt to imagine being that tree… I imagine my being being inside the tree and/or imagine the tree’s being being inside me… It is a strange and subtle shift of imagining… I cannot sustain it long or venture that far into the feeling, but for a few moments the world shifts… What it means to be so still, to have a strong, solid, still trunk, with delicate flutterings of movement at the tips of branches and in the leaves… To have such a different concept of time… I notice people walking/driving past, the wind and rain flowing by, the many passing moments… And they feel so very different… The people appear so fast, fleeting, inconsequential and unaware… The sun, wind, rain feel like such constant companions… The slowness so vast and the secrets contained within that slowness so deep that they can only be fully revealed if one can be still for long enough… As long as a tree’s lifetime maybe… There is no inertness in that domain, no stagnation, no disconnection, and no lack of doing, action and results (or rather no need for such childish things)… Rather a much larger, richer experience to be discovered…

    Anyway, your and David’s words transported me there for a moment. Thank you again, I think I will go outside today and see if I can find a tree to be close to…

    Amanda x

    • Thank you so much, Amanda! So glad this post transported you! Writing it turned into a bit of an experiment as it unfolded, as it seemed to demand that I try to create a kind of solid, sparse feel to the prose from which thoughts could roam – a bit like the rock itself as an anchor for all the moments revolving around it. And I’m usually much more wordy!

      I love your description of your tree game – which has transported me into those moments of stillness, altered perception and richness of perspective you experienced. Wonderful and enriching to read! In Bristol, there is a public parkland called Ashton Court where there are many veteran and ancient trees – including the Domesday Oak, which is thought to be about 700 years old. They are such inspiring, awesome trees – so full of being and Time. Many of the ancient trees are hollowed by the long, long passing of years – and, as you can imagine, it’s magical to stand inside those hollows and to feel the sheer life and amazing being-ness of those venerable “Ents”! They are like a whole world in themselves, supporting a complex community of micro-life – and enriching all life in so many essential ways. Your account of your tree-moment whilst waiting for the bus reminded me very strongly of a lovely, mindful moment described in one of Emma Restall Orr’s books which I read a year or two ago… I think you’d really like David Abram’s book. I’m loving reading it, journeying through it slowly to allow for all the pauses for thought and absorption that it warrants. Hope you managed to find a tree to be close to!

      Melanie x

  4. I too wonder if I will ever see a red squirrel in the wild. They’re almost mythical for me now, so it’s wonderful to see that hard little stare from the branches.

    • I really hope you do get to see a red squirrel in the wild one day, Selina. That feeling that they’re almost mythical all adds to the magic when an encounter does happen! I’m sure your boys would be as excited as my daughter was. If you’re ever on travels in these areas, there are good chances in Northumberland, the Lake District – and on Brownsea Island in Dorset. Friends of mine also saw one on the Isle of Wight. As I was saying to WhistlesintheWind, sometime soon I’ll be blogging about a more recent encounter we had with another wild red squirrel – in a surprising, really easy to get to setting (if your boys are anything like my kids, they’ll approve of the venue – being there involves eating cake!)

  5. Hi, I did find a tree, and a lake, inland from where my husband and I live just north of San Diego… We walked round the lake picturing being able to move there and have our little bit of peace and quiet away from the people, cars, roads, buildings and fast pace of the southern Californian coastal area… Maybe in the future, for now I’ll keep finding the stillness next to trees and the ocean! x

    • Glad you found a tree, Amanda… and the lake sounds beautiful (I’ll keep my fingers crossed that one day you and your husband will get the chance to move there – or somewhere as lovely). You’re so right… finding those places of peace and stillness, wherever you are, is so important… x

  6. The new book sounds very good – I still haven’t got round to reading his other book (which I gave my partner & he’s read it!) so I think you’ve just reminded me that I’d like to put that next on my list.
    I only ever remember seeing those chunky American grey squirrels in England. Luckily they haven’t been introduced here so we have quite often been lucky enough to see red squirrels – they are so delicate & wonderful to watch. If more children could have the opportunities to appreciate from a young age in such a way that you’ve given your daughter I think lots of the world’s problems would be solved! But I’m dreaming I know!

    Rocks do have a presence – sometimes you can almost feel as though they were watching you. I often think that given they can create this physiological response (which my modern rational side doesn’t give itself up to), it helps towards understanding why other cultures, especially past ones, evolved religion.

    • Sonya – I always love the perspectives you bring. Thank you for your lovely and interest-filled comment! I’ll be reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous too as soon as I can get round to it after I’ve finished Becoming Animal. There’s so much to say about his writing – and about how timely and needed the perspectives he presents are. I think I’ll have to save that though for a later post, when I’ve finished reading the book! It’ll be really interesting to hear sometime what you think of Spell of the Sensuous when you’ve read it…

      That’s fantastic that you get chances quite often to see red squirrels where you are. When I took the pictures above in 2006, there were notices up all over the woodland’s car park to say that the dreaded squirrel pox, passed on via the grey squirrels, had recently hit the local population of reds quite badly. The posters were asking walkers to report any sick animals they might come across. Fortunately, the one we saw seemed healthy and lively…

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