Alas, Poor Squirrel Nutkin

I am writing from Scotland. My husband, David Tarbet, and I are fortunate enough to spend many months every year in the village of Tongland, which is outside Kirkcudbright in Southwest Scotland. We’ve been coming here for twenty years and stay in our wee cottage, built in 1812. Rose Cottage, that’s its original name, was built for, and granted to, a pensioned-off nanny by her employer, the Earl of Selkirk. And yes, roses still grow in our front garden.

Rose Cottage

Rose Cottage

We spend as much time as we can in Scotland–between three and four months a year. The “news”–local, national, and international–dominates our conversations. Six or seven national newspapers and at least one local newspaper are available in Kirkcudbright every day. We could also, if we had the stamina, listen to hourly updates of news on BBC 4 and BBC Scotland. And of course, we gather local gossip along the way. When they are not remembering the June 6th D-Day celebrations and the part the brave British played in the successful invasion of Normandy, my neighbors are probably discussing, or at least wondering about, President Obama’s dismissal of the Scottish campaign  for independence.

His position puzzles Scottish observers who remember that the United States of America was founded on principles of self-determination that resulted in the American War of independence. I’ve tried in a desultory Internet sort of way to find out if Obama had ever visited Scotland. I only found an invitation from First Minister Alex Salmond to visit his ancestral homeland. The American President seems to be related to several Scots. His maternal ancestor, Edward Fitz Randolph, is said to have emigrated from Scotland to America in the 17th Century, while some historians trace Obama’s ancestry back to William the Lion, ruler of Scotland from 1165 to 1214.

Wonderful possibilities abound for ways to imagine Obama a Scottish patriot. But that Scottish identity becomes immediately complicated by the impending election, one that Obama hopes to influence. He is starting to seem more like an interfering interloper than a statesman. Kind of like another American poking his nose into business that does not belong to him. Kind of like the infamous American Grey Squirrel.

At last, an Animal you are saying—and about time!

But as many of you know, it’s difficult not to  talk about Animals without being, on some level, political.  The war between squirrels, the red and the grey, has been waged for many years all over the United Kingdom. One of the first things I learned from my Scottish neighbors was how dastardly and infectious the dangerous grey squirrel could be. This interloper, often described as an immigrant from America, is often blamed for the destruction of the beloved red squirrel. As an American interloper, I try not to be personally affronted by the attacks made over and over on the invasive American grey.

Besides, who can resist falling in love with the red squirrel, wee native. Just flip through the pages of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. (The reproduction of the illustrated text, published in 1903, can be found online). Like all children’s tales, it comes with a stiff and unyielding moral axe to grind, punishing—snip-snap—cheeky and rebellious Nutkin for mocking his powerful, ponderous elder, Mr. Owl, with irrepressible riddles and rhymes. Order reigns when Nutkin’s magnificent swishy tail is reduced to a penitent stub—a pathetic wee stub that reminds him never to riddle or rhyme again.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

We are still supplied with moral and political tales involving transgressive squirrels, but these days, in the UK, it is the grey squirrel, not the rebellious red, who is found guilty of crimes against natural and social mores. Quite simply, the grey squirrel doesn’t belong in Britain. The facts vary, depending on their source, but most reports agree that the alien Grey Squirrel has been causing trouble since 1876 when Thomas Brocklehurst, of Henbury Park, Cheshire, brought back a pair of grey squirrels from his business trip to America.  The talk of Cheshire, they inspired neighbors and visitors to breed  grey squirrels for their own edification and amusement.

Brocklehurst, in a scientific experiment of his own devising, released the grey into the wild to see what would happen.  Not surprisingly, those cheeky and irrepressible immigrants were made of tougher stuff than native Squirrel Nutkin. The greys flourished. Today up to five million grey squirrels inhabit the woodland across Britain, while there are probably 120,00 to 140,00 red squirrels living in in the UK. 75% of these reds live in Scotland.

“Exterminate the Greys!,” the Red supporters cry. They argue, accurately, that grey squirrels carry a virus that can kill red squirrels. The decline of the red squirrel is often blamed on this parapoxvirus. They also argue that grey supremacy is, well, just not fair. Grey squirrels can digest acorns better than the reds. Hardy greys, full of acorns, breed more easily than their stressed, delicate red counterparts. To solve the problem, many red squirrel supporters try to curb the grey population and sometimes work to eradicate it entirely.

Most of the reds live in Scotland, but I see very few of them, and none so far in Kirkcudbright or Tongland. A friend in Gatehouse-of-Fleet, up the road and closer to the Galloway Hills, sees them often in her garden, and feeds them peanuts. When I asked her about the red’s difficulty digesting acorns, she shook her head. Not only, she told me, do they eat acorns, but they gather them and bury them every fall. And then she displayed her truly scientific mind. Hmm, she said, thinking for a while, now that you mention it, I haven’t actually seen a red squirrel dig up or eat an acorn. I’ve only seen them bury the nuts. She also told me that villagers were advised to let authorities know where and when they see a grey squirrel. Why, I asked, really knowing the answer before she gave it. They will be shot, she answered. Oh, I said, offenders will be punished and the breed will be disciplined, just like Squirrel Nutkin.

And so we turned to lighter topics, like the wonderfully illustrated Beatrix Potter books. And I sent her to the online site where she could reread Nutkin’s adventures. Sometimes literature is more comforting than life. It is difficult for even the best of friends to talk about shooting a grey squirrel for the crime of being, well, a grey squirrel.

Here are some links to learn more about the war between the reds and the grays. The Richmond report seems the most balanced, at least to me, but then I love grey squirrels. They perform acrobatic feats in our garden in Jamaica Plain, where they often trap themselves into squirrel-proof bird feeders, only to free themselves like airborne Houdinis.


This post is dedicated to Bonnie Burns, one of the bloggers on the Amazing Blog Tour. I hope you have visited all three bloggers that I introduced you to in my last post. If you missed out, here are the links to their excellent blogs: Bonnie Burns; Joel FishmanAnna Vodicka. Bonnie is a lover of live squirrels and a dedicated and careful curator of her collection of squirrel memorabilia. Here is a small sample of her collection:  


Red and Grey Squirrels living in harmony

Red and Grey Squirrels living in harmony

The Mother of All Whales

Since this is my first blog, I would like to make this a space where we can talk about animals.  This imagines first of all that I am going to have readers who will want to talk to each other.  And that I will even have readers besides the friends I have platooned into this project.  Bonnie, David, Judith, Sheila, Patrick, Kari, Emily, Andrew, Joyce, and Molly. Yes Molly, you too.  I know you will read me, but the others will need to materialize.

Last Saturday night, March 8, I saw The Whale, and he was immense, beyond understanding, most gigantic and malignant. I saw this whale both glorious and terrifying, in Moby-Dick, the opera, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.  On its last night, the opera provided me with an unexpected beginning for my blog celebrating  animals, great and small.


Rockwell Kent’s Moby Dick

You see, I read Moby Dick over and over as an undergraduate, five times, and one more time in graduate school at Brown. Only then did I tire of reading the book, becoming in fact so tired that in 1968 I ran away from the great American novel to find myself in Berkeley working in the British 18th century. Reading and writing about even bigger novels than Melville’s, novels obsessed with women raped and ravaged and imprisoned in and out of marriages.  But that’s another story.

The opera Moby-Dick thrilled me, down to my bones, getting into my sinews, almost stopping my heart.  But even more, the memory of its story drove me back to the novel. Not back to the “real” novel; that is at home in Boston in my bookcase.  I fled instead to the Internet looking up quotes and fragments from Melville’s text.  Here is one I found: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.”

My memoir, THE ANIMALS, does not descend to the flea, but it does rejoice in the newt, the turtle, and the guinea pig.  We cannot all be giants grappling with Leviathan.  What I care about is how we love and battle, cherish and sometimes fail our children, our partners, and yes our animals.  It is that particular struggle that became even more telling while I was watching the opera last Saturday night.  Watching the doomed sailors wait for the whale, I was struck by the way that love shaped the action of the opera.

The grandiosity of Ahab’s loving hatred of the whale, the largest mammal on earth, was countered by the men’s sense of love, a domestic passion, for each other.  This love was tenderly expressed in song, in dance, and in lazy hours on the ropes, as the men watched for the whale that would undo them all. Just in the way that loving animals can enlarge us and undo us.  That, you must know, is the point of my own wee book.  Wee is a small word, a tender word that speaks lovingly of the failed grandiosity in us all.  And love does endure.  Deep down Melville probably knew that.