MWD28 - On Tree Branches and Alarmed Squirrels

Wherein I trace my family tree and think about raising the alarms

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Since the weather has turned, we have entered the season of open windows, which means I can be working at the dining room table and hear a lot of what’s happening in and under the trees outside. Recently, an unfamiliar call stirred me from my chair and sent me to the window, where I searched the branches until I saw the source of the noise: a standard grey squirrel. Barely visible on a low branch, she was giving out a longish braaach, each trill accompanied by a twitch of her tail. My curiosity sent me to *the google* to look up what this call could mean, and I found out.

The call I heard is one of several ways a squirrel will raise an alarm, this one usually referring to a “terrestrial predator.” Aerial predators, like my hawks, get a longer moan, apparently. I looked long out those windows, trying to see what could have set her off, but I never saw anything. And a few moments later, she was back down at the dish of seed I put out for the squirrels. (Yes, I am that person.)

It got me thinking about the ways we send out alarm signals and how, for many of us, the last 9 months or so have felt like one alarm after another. This was especially evident in my corner of Twitter on Friday night, after the announcement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. There, on every branch, you could hear and see those alarm calls. THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT IS ENDING, they said. And, right though they may be, in that moment, I was just sad that such a remarkable woman was no longer in this world, and I was relieved that the endlessly assaulted body of that remarkable woman could now rest.

Here’s the thing: the world as we know it is always ending, in one way or another. I don’t say that to diminish the importance of so great a loss; I mean, instead, to remind us that the work we have before us is the same work we’ve always had. Whether it’s the 2016 election or the 2020 election, the outcome is but a symptom of whatever ails us. The death of Ginsburg is a terrible event; that it causes so many to fear what comes next is a symptom of a greater ill. The wildfires are a symptom of a bigger sickness. The outspoken bigotry. The objectification of women. The hatred and cruelty and incivility. These are the symptoms, but we’ve had the diagnosis for years and years.

There are definitely days when it all feels too much, when the news of all that has gone wrong and will keep going wrong is a weight I don’t know how to carry. But there is a new hummingbird visiting my feeder, and the sky’s relentless blue gives me life. Even the earlier dark of fall evenings reminds me of how small I am, how in need of protection and how protected. Margaret Renkl knows this feeling, writing in Late Migrations, of days when “the weight of belonging here is a heaviness I can’t shake.” On these days, her mind turns to a particularly lovely spring morning in the sunshine of her butterfly garden,

which is mostly cultivated weeds punctuated by the uncultivated kind that come back despite my pinching and tugging. I think of the caterpillars on the milkweed plants, unperturbed by the overspray, and the resident red-tailed hawk gliding overhead, chased by a mockingbird and three angry crows, and the bluebird standing on the top of the nest box protecting his mate, who is inside laying an egg. I think of that morning — not even a morning, not even an hour — and I say to myself, Be an egg. Be a mockingbird. Be a weed.

There’s a part of me that wants to resist this turning away, recognizing as we must that there is so much to do, so much I can do if I only would. There is another part of me that thinks we would do well to consider the timeline and urgencies of the trees and the weeds, the things that will stand long after we are gone.

Margaret Renkl’s memoir in pieces had so many moments of resonance that I finished and felt we must have some common lineage, which reminded me of Austin Kleon’s notion of Climbing Your Own Family Tree, a highlight of his first book Steal Like an Artist. He writes,

Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas.

Several years ago, I followed Kleon’s recommendation and tracked backwards the list of thinkers and writers and artists that have built me. But I am not a finished product, and I am always still becoming, and my little branch of that family tree has sprouted from lots of thinkers still alive and thinking today. These are the people I can most easily feel in conversation with, even though we’ve never met. Kleon is one of them. In the post linked above, he cites Alan Jacobs who is definitely another for me. I remember being so delighted to learn these two men were friends. Now, we can add a third of my influential thinkers to that circle: Robin Sloan.

Sloan describes Alan Jacobs so perfectly in his latest newsletter:

again and again, I have seen him reject easy tribalisms, political and religious and aesthetic; resist the inviting flow of the moment; decline to dunk on his opponents. Again and again . . . he has written and argued with generosity and creativity and care.

Jacobs has a new book out, which I look forward to reading. As does another thinker on my branch: Eula Biss. When I first read Notes from No Man’s Land, I actually wrote down the words: this is the kind of work I want to be doing. Her latest is on order for me at the library, and I finally made it to the top of the holds list for Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, so I will start it tonight. There are more, so many more voices in my head, so many more thinker-writers out there doing profound and powerful work. I can only hope to catch a glimpse of a fraction of them.

Basketball is by no means my favorite sport, no, not at all, but Ross Gay writing about all the courts he’s loved over the years is such a beautiful paean to sport and community and neighborliness and love. And why in the world did I not know he had a new book out? Ross Gay - yeah, he’s part of this branching wildness.

Are there thinkers I need to add? Send me an email with your list. I promise a reply.


Unexpected Joy Department


Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response. And if you can think of someone who might appreciate this sort of weekly musing, please consider sharing this post with them and encouraging them to join us. There’s always room for more around this odd table.