It’s called serendipity, making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. In itself, a serendipitous word — a “sleeper”, like one of those books, pieces of music or any other cultural trivia that emerges into wider appreciation after long hibernation.
Horace Walpole coined it — and we can date that with unusual precision, because the first OED citation is one of his letters, 28th January 1754. Only in the 20th century did the term achieve general currency. Joyce’s Shem is a semisemitic serendipitist [page 191].
My serendipity is finding good writing at random. Oddly enough, those fillers in the travel and property-porn pages often rise above the chuck-away stuff regurgitated by wannabe journos. And the ultimate “filler” is the Sunday supplement, usually worthy articles to space out the prestige advertising.
Which is my case in point, here.
The New York Times Magazine is the gold-medallist among Sunday supplements. It provides a regular piece, Letter of recommendation, which is a direct descendant of the essays of Addison, Charles Lamb, or even of Montaigne, the form’s true inventor.
This week’s was Avi Steinberg on Squirrels, 900 words of well-hewn prose. I recognise Steinberg from two earlier, longer, works: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian and The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri. Steinberg might readily be approached through an online Harvard Magazine profile. he’s well worth the effort.
Steinberg on squirrels:
… regardless of how you answer the Squirrel Problem, the key just might be its perfectly ordinary premise: It assumes proximity between human and squirrel, and it also assumes that this close relationship means something. And why not? Because our daily paths are inevitably crossed by running squirrels, shouldn’t squirrels run through our philosophical questions too?
… we are a party to an unusual social contract with the squirrel. She is the only mammal who lives free and works in open, direct contact with humans. Rats and raccoons hide in the shadows. Coyotes lurk on the periphery. The deer and the bunny might as well occupy a kingdom of thin air. Dogs and cats, noble souls though they are, have been turned into a class of indentured clowns.
Squirrels, though, are right there with us. They live on our level and toil on the same schedule as humans, in every season. They share our approach to life’s problems: They save and plan ahead, obsessively. They make deposits and debits (of nuts and seeds, mostly); build highways (returning to well-known routes in and around trees); manage 30-year mortgages (they can inhabit a single nest for that many years); refrigerate their staples (in their case, pine cones); and dry their delicacies for storage (mushrooms, as we do). They work the day shift and live in walk-up apartments. And like stock traders, they gamble in the marketplace. While most animals breed as food becomes available, squirrels have developed the ability to predict a future seed glut and reproduce accordingly, like bullish investors.
I differ from Sternberg in two essentials. First:
Squirrels are scarce in literature, but the few appearances they have made are telling. Herman Melville identified the flying squirrel as the fiction writer’s model for a realistic character: The creature is exactly as weird and incongruous as an actual person. One of Kafka’s most unsung creatures was a squirrel whose “bushy tail was famous in all the forests,” and whom he describes, in a jot in his notebooks, as “always traveling, always searching.”
Shakespeare — only the once, but nevertheless in a well-known context — had a squirrel. It lurks in the Queen Mab speech:
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
That speech, by the way, (and I suspect because of the Prick’d) is where the school internet porn-filter cuts in. Then, I’ve long argued that, were the Powers-That-Be aware just how filthy — filthy I tell’ee! — Bill Shagsper can be in the classroom of a dissident teacher, the whole oeuvre would instantly be proscribed.
And who, with any sensitivity, could overlook the Greatest Squirrel escapologist of them all — Squirrel Nutkin:
The other issue is red versus gray.
The prime culprit is — but of course — a banker. In 1876 Thomas Unett Brocklehurst, a Victorian banker decided to ornament his estate at Henry Park, Cheshire, by releasing a pair of American gray squirrels (which is why I eschew “grey” in this context). Other landowners found this charming, and copied Brocklehurst. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
The British — and Shakespearean — revenge was and is the common starling.
Again, we can name and shame the villain: Eugene Schieffelin, who was a drug millionaire and a Bard-nut. In 1890 he released into New York’s Central Park five dozen starlings. The fool was inspired to reproduce in America every bird-species mentioned by Shakespeare.