Squirrels & Stingers: A Nature Writing Lesson

I’ve been going a little crazy after two months plus of sheltering in place, thinking a lot about travel and asking myself, what was it about the possibility of leaving that made staying bearable, now that I’m staying without the possibility of leaving? Instead of long-distance travel, I make long-distance phone calls. One friend responds to my troubles with an admonishment: “Get out into nature. Every day.” She quotes Charles Dickens, “Never underestimate the power of a walk.”

And so I take one of the dogs and walk. Up into the butterfly sanctuary, kicking up plumes of fine yellow powder with each step. It’s June and it still hasn’t really rained and I’ve never seen Cerro Pelon this dry. I wonder if Cerro Pelon has ever seen itself this dry. The wildflowers that fed the monarch migration are nothing but dried husks on dead stalks. The moss that coats the tree branches looks stiff and scratchy, in need of resurrection. Layers of dry leaves crunch loudly underfoot, releasing an acrid smell while amplifying the sound of every squirrel and bird in the bush. The dog keeps disappearing to investigate.

The walk is not just for sanity-making, it’s also research. I’m going back to a part of the forest where a scene involving a paper wasp sting takes place in my book. I pause to watch these wasps as we near the site, trying to decide how to best describe the way their long legs trail behind them when they fly. Streamers? Tentacles? Why does the word “parachute” come to mind?

A scolding series of clicks pulls me back. Oso the black dog has scared up his third black squirrel. The squirrel’s pitch shifts from churlish to panicked when she reaches the tippy top of a wobbly sapling. She doesn’t know that Oso, still circling below, can’t climb trees. The squirrel leaps through the air, aiming for the lower branch of a venerable old oak.

It’s a long shot and I’m transfixed, remembering the time that a similarly risky move sent a squirrel plummeting straight into the open jaws of the yellow dog. I wasn’t there to witness squirrel death, but later I treated the desperate claw marks that ribbed the fine fur of Panda’s snout.

This time, the tree branch drops with the squirrel’s weight and she bounces up and off into the oak’s upper reaches. Oso has already stopped paying attention. He’s chomping the air, clicking his teeth, turning his head frantically towards his rump first one way then the other. I can’t see what’s causing him problems. We start walking deeper into the ravine when I feel a sharp prick on my calf. I swat without thinking and see a ball of black fuzz flying away and then circling back for another attack. I start to run and so does Oso. We escape this angry little fur ball, trotting straight into a section of trail that’s crawling with wasps.

The tingling on my leg subsides as I slow to watch the wasps trundling over dead leaves. I’d come to investigate one stinging insect only to be stung by another. In the process, I’d come across a contradiction: how can you be fully present in nature when you’re thinking about how to represent it? You’ve already removed yourself from the direct experience once you’re putting it into words. But nature always wins: lose yourself in thought, and she will find a way to jerk you right back into the moment.

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