Squirrels in Words and Pictures

November 7, 2014

Puck, the squirrel

Puck, the squirrel

Red squirrel, Minnesota northwoods

American red squirrel, Minnesota northwoods

I wonder if those of us who travel with a camera, making photographs of our encounters, don’t become a bit stunted in our vocabulary of descriptive words.  I was reminded of this recently when I reread John Muir’s travel journals from Alaska, and again when I read some of John Burrough’s nature writings.  They relied on words to express the wonders they were seeing around them, and what powerful magic they wielded in their writings, creating vibrant pictures in the mind through words alone.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such detailed descriptions of “squirrelly” squirrel behavior as those that flowed from John Burrough’s pen.  He captures the devil-may-care acrobatics of the red squirrel better than any photograph.  See if you agree:

“He is the most frisky, diverting, and altogether impish of all our wild creatures.  He is a veritable Puck. . . . What an actor he is!  What a furry embodiment of quick, nervous energy and impertinence.”

“By jerks and nervous, spasmodic spurts he rushes along from cover to cover like a soldier dodging the enemy’s bullets. . . . What a nervous, hustling, highstrung creature he is — a live wire at all times and places!  That pert curl of the end of his tail, as he sits chipping the apple or cutting through the shell of a nut, is expressive of his character.”

“The red squirrel is always actively saucy, aggressively impudent.”

“No other  of our wood-folk has such a facile, emotional tail as the red squirrel.  It seems as if an electric current were running through it most of the time; it vibrates, it ripples, it curls, it jerks, it arches, it flattens; now it is like a plume in his cap; now it is a cloak around his shoulders; then it is an instrument to point and empathize his states of emotional excitement; every movement of his body is seconded or reflected in his tail.”

(All quotes from “A Barn Door Outlook,” The Writings of John Burroughs, vol. 15, The Summit of the Years, 1913)

Now, wasn’t that delightful?

Watercolor sketch of squirrel

Watercolor sketch of squirrel


3 Responses to “Squirrels in Words and Pictures”

  1. Elisa Says:

    Yes! I love his wording. It leaves me wondering if I would see exactly as his words, and he saw it. Though, I suppose it is all different now.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Oh, my. This is as good as the ones on November 3. Can you feel the internal struggle, there in the Pacific Northwest?

    Burrough’s description of the squirrel tail is perfect.

  3. Gallivanta Says:

    Delightful indeed.

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