I just watched a squirrel fall from a tree, heard his bones crack against the pavement as he let out a small squeak of terror and protest. That small but vicious crack struck a chord of pathos magnified by its tiny nature. It was not the sound of giant knuckles cracking, but of delicate structures smashed against the hard cruelty of manufactured concrete.
Where was the soft, absorbent earth of mother nature, that could have rushed to meet her little child and ushered him to safety with a gentle roll and tilt?
Squirrels are those invincible little pests that we allow ourselves to grow annoyed with, because they have an unflappable air of invincibility. Canada geese are avians of the same ilk. Nothing about squirrels (particularly of the Midwestern variety) appears to be vulnerable or fragile. They rummage through garbage bins with disgusting nonchalance, they approach us to beg for our food with eerie boldness. They saunter about with the insouciance of an animal who possesses a much higher rank on the food chain. It is easy to laugh at an arrogant creature, but watching the world deal a blow to the pert little rodent calls for tears.
I watched with dismay this morning as a goose, capsized in the turgid St. Joseph river, paddled her small webbed feet desperately in the air, attempting to right herself. Her wing had caught on something submerged below the frigid water, and her attempts to pull it free were fraught with the desperation of an individual surrounded by a complacent collective. Finally, she wrestled her wing free, and paddled quickly away, her companions barely registering the scene.
The squirrel who fell was chased out of the tree by a vicious and territorial little rascal. I watched the squirrel's descent, and marveled to see that he leapt gingerly away, nothing broken enough to handicap him. He hopped quickly away towards a neighboring grove of trees a secure several feet away. The bully chased another squirrel down out of the tree, scampering around the knotted knobs of the pine tree, shrieking loudly.
The injured squirrel scampered off, running over the shoes of a graduate student walking towards the parking lot. The graduate student seemed unconcerned, the squirrel seemed to have larger concerns than the possible threat of this human.
My first instinct was an image: of lifting up that fallen squirrel and rocking him gently in my arms. Consoling him in his pain. It's an anthropomorphic instinct: to attribute to the squirrel human-like pain, and to wish to give him a humanly antidote. In chapter 9 of The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis meditates on animal pain, and begins by invoking the utter mystery of the animal world: we know neither the ultimate reason why animals were made nor do we fully understand who these creatures are. All thought about them must be, to some extent, a projection (which human beings have been doing, in mistaken but not misfiring empathetic instinct, since the beginning of time) of ourselves and our experience of the world upon them, and stutters and stumblings in the dark.
Pain, it would seem, occurs in them, but perhaps it is incorrect to say they feel it, particularly the mental anguish that accompanies human pain. I wonder what sort of pain the squirrel felt as his bones cracked on the pavement. But I thought then that I would never want to greet that pain--whatever its appearance, in the smallest or largest creature--with theorizing or indifference. The world is full of too much human pain, it seems like that would exhaust our empathy. But I hope I greet all pain--human and animal, pain I have caused, and pain through natural causes--with that instinct to rush towards it and sweep it up in my arms.