There is a bird bath by our back door, and in the evening the wildlife come to drink. It’s like a Serengeti waterhole, with finches, a squirrel or two, and the chipmunks in lieu of ostriches, wildebeest, and gazelles. There is even a lion-equivalent, albeit behind the glass: the cat Telemann, who creeps and skulks and lashes his tail and then hurls himself against the glass, sure that this time he’ll get lucky.
The squirrels long ago figured out the nature and role of glass doors, and they pass this knowledge down to their children, who ignore the gray beast and continue with their drinking. The chipmunks are more skittish, but they’re slowly learning to ignore Telemann’s attacks.
Chipmunks, even full-grown ones, exude baby charm, with their big heads, tiny noses, and widely spaced eyes. Elegant stripes of black, cream, and gray run the length of their bodies, as if they had been carved from some richly veined wood. From my COVID cloister, I spend a lot of time watching chipmunks, and as anyone knows who has looked closely, in order to draw it, at a leaf or a sleeping cat, the attentive gaze sooner or later ensnares the heart.
The Franciscan Richard Rohr says that “we must love something deeply to know its soul.” So if looking leads to loving, and loving leads to knowledge of another’s soul, I should, with luck, before autumn come to know something of the chipmunk‘s soul. But what can a chipmunk’s soul, its essence, possibly be like? How can I, a lumbering giantess by comparison, understand the quicksilver brevity of a chipmunk?
Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him. But he was talking about understanding as an intellectual process. I’mtalking about knowledge and understanding as an action of the heart, prompted by love–the kind of knowledge that Saint Francis had of the birds and of the wolf of Gubbio. The kind of understanding that Robert Burns had of the mouse whose nest he accidentally broke up with his plow. The kind of knowledge of our brother primates that rewarded Jane Goodall’s patient gaze.
As the summer unspools, I attend to the chipmunks, and wait to see what arises. The trouble is, they’re so quick that they’re usually just a blur, so to supplement my practice I looked at a couple of chipmunk videos on YouTube.
One of them showed a mother chipmunk who had made her nest inside what looked like the hollow leg of a horizontal aluminum ladder. The end was covered by a piece of metal with a hole in the middle. Her thumb-sized baby was old enough to crawl out of that hole, but, in her opinion, not old enough to spend the night outside.
She opened her mouth wide, picked him up around the middle, and tried to stuff him sideways into the hole, but he was too big. She put him down and picked him up by the hip, but he still didn’t fit. He needed to go in nose-first, the way he had come out, but she couldn’t manage it.
It was getting dark, and she was frantic to get him back inside and put him to bed. He would have none of it. With the foolish invulnerability of the young, whenever she loosened her grip he would move away, twitching his tail and staring out at the wide, green, new world. She tried showing him by example. She went into the hole and then stuck out her head saying, see how it’s done? But he would ignore her and she would jump out and pick him up again.
I watched the four minute video in an agony of maternal empathy. Here before my eyes the eternal drama of the generations was being played out: the young struggling to get out and get away, and the old pleading, Wait! It’s not safe! You’re not ready yet!
The chipmunks outside my window move too quickly for me to grasp their soul. But that mother chipmunk was speaking my language, and her words echoed in my heart.