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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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My love-hate relationship with squirrels is with the adults that raid the dozen bird feeders in my back yard, not the month-old baby I’d just rescued. It had dropped – undamaged – 30 feet to the ground in my neighbourhood park after a large American crow had been dive-bombed by two smaller crows.

There was a precarious minute as I balanced tying my predatory dog while shooing away the bird still intent on snatching his prey and kvetching in the uncut hillside grass. Picking up the palm-sized, ebony furred creature, it quivered as my gloved hand stroked it. I wanted to reassure the adorable rodent that it was safe – from the birds and my Labradoodle.

I’d been playing fetch with my two-year-old dog Hannah on a downhill stretch in our neighbourhood park near two unique conifers. Barren in wintertime, the two tamaracks had turned lushly green during the above-average warmth in April. It provided a near impregnable shelter for a mother squirrel to make a dense wasp-shaped nest high in the tree. Waiting for an opportune moment, the crafty crow had somehow penetrated the foliage and grabbed its late-afternoon snack while the mother squirrel foraged in a nearby forest.

The fledglings in my yard triggered every protective instinct I had

The baby squirrel promptly fell asleep as I placed it carefully in my jacket pocket. I had two possible options: adopt or climb. A colleague of mine used to bring abandoned baby squirrels to our elementary school basement, nurturing and feeding them until they were old enough to be released. Although my wife may have agreed to do the same in our home, our two cats have adeptly kept our home mouse-free for many years, and may not have understood why this rodent was to be kept safe.

The tall tree seemed built for climbing, an activity I last pursued when Hotel California topped the charts. I kept looking up at the dozens of sturdy branches radiating from the pine. The branches seemed thick enough to support the weight of a 200-pound man. Unless? Unless they couldn’t. I’d kept the promise to my wife and three kids to avoid injury in these COVID times. There would be no adventurous bike touring of the Cabot Trail or chopping of firewood. An errant strand of red Christmas lights still dangles from a tree near the house. And climbing was restricted to watching the documentary The Dawn Wall for the seventh time.

I noted one of Kitchener, Ont.’s two hospitals was a stone’s throw from the park, the big white H easily seen in the distance. The staff parking lot was adjacent to the back of the park. I could simultaneously fall, yell for help and a nurse finishing her shift could hear my cries. If crippled mountain climbers cut off hands and still reach safety, surely two RNs could drag my unconscious body to St. Mary’s.

Hannah watched in quiet bewilderment as her 58-year-old owner began his ascent. One vertical step at a time, break the task into increments, reminded the Chris Hadfield voice inside my head. “Preparation is not only about managing external risks but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.” The astronaut’s aversion to risk then repeated the possible COVID triage protocol in Ontario’s hospitals at the time in my subconscious.

Just breathe, I told myself. Already halfway up the tree, I picked out the rest of my route: a tricky pull up near the end, followed by three points of contact near the nest. I think I could hear a baby sibling or two making noises as I pulled the tiny creature out of my pocket. This was the critical conjunction of balance, baby and bewilderment. I placed it back inside its home, patched up an errant hole near the bottom with paper towels, and took a deep breath.

The return journey turned out to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. I should have paid more heed to climber Tommy Caldwell’s advice about downward climbing difficulties on El Capitan. I chose an alternate route that left me trapped and helpless, branches thinning and unclimbable. Shimmying back up to the nest I managed to correctly navigate the downward passage.

With my feet on solid ground, the environmentalist in me felt exhilarated. The rationalist knew that it had been somewhat foolish. The crow needs food for sustenance, possibly for its own nest of hungry fledglings nearby. I know several neighbours who routinely live trap squirrels, cruelly willing to separate mothers from babies in their ill-intentioned attempt to diminish the rodent population. Early morning walks in Lakeside Park often revealed reminders of the overnight predation by coyotes, foxes and hawks.

The pandemic has meant the loss of control of everything I took for granted. Inconveniences such as waiting for yeast and flour to arrive on empty grocery store shelves. Contactless pickup orders that go awry and nightmares spent searching for masks. The wait to see my two granddaughters who live several hours away is soul-numbing. Listening to the news about the dangers and stress front-line workers, warehouse employees and migrant workers face makes me ashamed of the relative safety retirement provides. Perhaps rescuing a helpless baby is pushback. A tiny and timely attempt at redemption during the worst of times. A foolish act to gain a bit of wisdom.

Clayton Klaver lives in Kitchener, Ont.

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