Sunday, December 6, 2009


Words are magical—if only we look at them. The thought behind this entry comes from pondering the scurry of squirrels in our yard as they prepare for winter. We have a great Y-shaped tree in our backyard on the left strut of which Y, this year, the clan has built itself two nests. We didn’t consciously see these nests until the leaves reluctantly went south during the last few weeks. But now we see them. And the squirrels, as every year, are in a seemingly frantic hurry to store-store-store up there the treasures they find on the ground, scurrying to great heights. To complete this picture I must say that they don’t always work. This time of year some impulse also causes several or maybe all of them to clamber about in the branches of a set of smaller trees, entirely bare of any kind of nutrition, while performing astounding feats of acrobatics, apparently strictly for fun—often chasing one another in the process.

Squirrels came into our sharper view here in the suburbs of Detroit for the first time because the area is densely populated with people and with trees, and the trees are full of squirrels. Here, for the first time, we saw black as well as grey ones. Brigitte and I come from lands across the Atlantic where squirrels are seemingly smaller and almost reddish brown. American squirrels draw European attention. Our granddaughter Stella demonstrated this on walks in the Grosse Pointes here during her recent visit—absolutely fascinated with the creatures and avidly making photographs of little beasts in actions that, for us, no longer invoke much interest; they’ve become mere background.

It’s been going on like this forever here, the same patterns repeating, repeating. And, yesterday, when my eyes followed squirrels in their play and labor, the world “social Darwinism,” mentioned in that day’s blog here still on my mind, a meditation on innocence began spontaneously, as follows, more or less: Nature is innocent—humanity cannot be. For a while there I was muddled as I pondered this, thinking that innocence is rooted in knowledge, thus rising from the Latin for gnoscere. In meaning not and gnoscere meaning to know. Unknowing. Not so, it turns out. Innocence is rooted in the word nocere, meaning harm: not harming. But, of course—and never mind the etymologies—it comes to the same thing. Nature does not know. Therefore, no matter what it does, Nature can do no harm. Man always knows, also does, and therefore always knows when it does—harm. Our superiority carries a high price.

Images of the Garden loomed up, of course, that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and thoughts of the paradox of humanity’s fall—or was it humanity’s rising? For you must already know good and evil before you’re able to disobey. The disobedience is present in potential before the teeth sink down into the apple. And the corollary, of course, is that a way of life aping the purely natural, thus obeying the hidden hand of the market or the roar of the vox populi, is not good policy. But, having arrived at that thought, the innocent pleasure of watching the squirrels faded away and I went indoors to make a cup of coffee.

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