The Tree Rats of Central Park

I don’t know why, but certain things in life are able to take on a life of their own. You can either resist them, or go along for the ride. Most of the time I choose the ride, but lately I have been resisting. I think it comes from having accumulated a closetful of things that do not work, which makes me more likely to say no. I am not sure which is the better choice, or if it even matters in the end, but there it is.

Case in point: I am back to squirrels. I don’t know why or how, but squirrels have figured in my imagination, psyche, and lived reality lately. They were also featured in this week’s Mittwoch Matinee, which is a recording of me reading “Rocky the Friggin Squirrel” from Nine Lives. It tells the story of how I became obsessed with killing a squirrel that had been plundering our bird feeder and that I nicknamed “Rocky.” What can I say? I am clever that way.

Also this past week I found myself strolling through Central Park with a friend from China. We spotted a squirrel scurrying about, and she tried to say “squirrel” in English. After two hours she still didn’t have it right. The double r’s were a killer. So, she began to teach me Chinese (perhaps for revenge). First word? Songshu. What’s a songshu, you ask?

I like to think of myself as a reasonable man. I am drawn to reasonable things. When I find something reasonable–not destined for my collection of unworkables–I want to find out more, dig deeper, take apart the inner workings of the watch to see how, literally,* it ticks. So it is with words. The first thing I look for when coming across a new word is its etymology. God bless the American Etymological Association.

Songshu is a composite word for squirrel that means “tree rat.” How wonderful! How marvelous! I thought. It turns out that Chinese is more accurate than English in describing this rodent whose saving grace is its teeth, designed for grinding, and its fluffy tail. Without these, it would surely suffer the same fate and ignominy as its infamous cousin, the city rat. And, let’s face it, the squirrel is a rat, albeit one that resides in trees. It has a slightly milder disposition. I say slightly, because in their chittering-chattering-chuttering, they can easily harass and hurl acorns at you as you sit on a park bench. Maybe it’s just me.

By comparison, English has been duped by what Aristotle called “accidents”; that is, by the animal’s pretty color, cute nibbling, and fluffy tail. None of these has to do with its essence. They simply describe external qualities that lull you into a dangerous sense of complacency. But beware, dear reader: a rat is a rat.

“Squirrel”is derived from the Old French esquireul, which is from the Latin sciurus, which comes from the Greek skiouros, which combines skia (shade) and oura (tail). Forgive the mixed metaphor, but do you see how we’ve been led on a wild goose chase?

Language may define our perception of reality to a large degree, but to get at the reality behind it–its essence–you have to come face to face with that reality, whether an idea, an emotion, an intuition, an observation, or a rat in a tree. At its best, language helps us get there; at its worst, it is an obstacle, fooling us into believing that black is white and squirrels are not rats in trees. When done intentionally–cavete–it’s called marketing.

The Chinese, in this instance, win hands down.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. *Overheard on campus this week: “It was so funny, I literally died from laughter.” So now I see dead people.

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