Okay. So I said this wasn’t about squirrels. But it very nearly was.
I was once visited by a squirrel. Several years ago I was sipping a cup of tea in the overgrown back garden of my rental house in inner-city Northbridge. It was autumn, a crisp chill to the late afternoon air. I heard a rustling near the base of the picket fence. Suddenly, something grey and fluffy hurled itself up from the tangle of ivy, snatched onto the fence, and scurried across the top, plunging into a nearby thicket of bamboo.
It is rare to see a squirrel in Australia. It occurred to me that my squirrel might be an escapee from the Zoo, perhaps it had stowed away in the boot of a visitor’s car. If you were going to jump your ride anywhere, it would be Northbridge. It’s great for cafes.
Concerned for its welfare, I began leaving out offerings of food; cubes of bread, a segment of apple, chocolate-dipped dried apricots. I balanced each morsel carefully on an old Milo lid I had punctured and skewered onto a long stick near the bamboo. Each morning I felt warmed to see the silver disk swiped clean.
Deeply flattered that he had chosen my garden, I threw myself into research, borrowing books from the library, googling late into the night. I learnt there are over 200 species of scurridae throughout the world, and that the Indian Squirrel grows to almost a metre in length. A gathering of squirrels is called a dray, and squirrels in captivity – like my little chap – can live to 18 years of age. I was indignant to discover National Geographic was so emphatic that no single squirrel lived in Australia. I considered penning them a letter requesting a retraction, or inviting one of their scientific ‘experts’ to visit my house.
I decided to write my own book: Voices from the Margin: Scurridae in Western Australia or Bodies That Matter: Squirrels Count Too. I collected images, made lists of words to describe what I had seen, I read everything I could lay my hands on, and began the long process of drafting chapters. Things started to get really interesting as I made plans for overseas travel; a field trip to a South American rainforest to see a flying squirrel in action, traversing the southern prairies of Canada in a jeep searching for fox squirrels. I felt myself transforming into an authority; a Lady Squirrelogist. I was following in the footsteps of women before me; 19th century enthusiasts banned from universities, but driven by instinct and passion. I saw myself labouring by lantern in the front parlour of my house, creating careful ink illustrations, publishing my findings in journals, dispelling myths. I didn’t even want to watch television at night.
Some weeks passed when a friend dropped in for a visit. Sipping tea in the back garden he too was surprised to see my little squirrel appear and run along the fence. ‘You want to get rid of that rat’ he said, taking another sip. ‘It’ll move into your house and start to breed.’
A rat? How did I miss that? Okay, I knew there was something odd about the waxy fluffy-less tail, but sometimes, we just want to believe. Mortified, I kicked down the Milo lid on the stick. I couldn’t bring myself to harm him, but I no longer worried about his health. I took back my squirrel books, shoved my pen-marked Atlas to the back of the book shelf.
After the day my friend visited the subject of my passion changed, but not the passion itself. When a book, a photograph, a pen and ink drawing, or a piece of writing is published we only see the end result. But often the search for information, the clues and the [mis]steps, the trips to places of significance, all of those hidden things that form the scaffolding of the finished product make interesting stories as well.
It is to the scaffolding, the individual and unique research process of writing that my blog, Lady Squirrelogist, dedicates her lantern.