Every year on the first night of Hanukkah I take a few moments to remember what I learned from a squirrel. This is a revised version of an annual tradition.
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain
Exchange was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.
-Maxine Kumin, “Woodchucks”
I have a contract with the squirrels. They may not consider it legally binding but it should be understood by both of us that they’re supposed to stay out of the attic and not come in to make nests in the insulation and chew the rafters and wiring. Since I can’t retaliate by moving into their nests in the trees I reserve the right to set traps in the attic.
A few years ago I woke up to squirrels or mice or used car salesmen or some other kind of vermin scrabbling around in the ceiling over my head. I set traps in the attic and whatever it was avoided the traps and went away. I like to think it or they saw the traps and said, “Holy mackerel, let’s move to some place safer like a nuclear reactor!” This is the way it should work. In December, though, a few dumb squirrels moved in and were holding cocktail parties well past midnight. I announced the terms of our agreement very loudly as I set out traps smeared with peanut butter. I didn’t really want to set the traps, primarily because that meant going up in the attic, which meant climbing that rickety wooden ladder. The ladder has two warnings on it. One, in huge print, says, “Failure to use ladder correctly could result in damage to the ladder!” As far as I can tell “failure to use ladder correctly” means dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire. The other warning, in fine print, says, “Oh yeah, you might also hurt yourself, so please take off those stupid slippers and put on some real shoes.” But the real problem is I don’t like heights, or, to be more specific, landing at the bottom of them. I get the shakes when I stand on a chair. Once in the attic I’m fine because I’m on solid ground again, or at least solid plywood over that insulation that looks like cotton candy but tastes much better. It’s the climbing part that gets to me, especially since I have to use at least one hand to carry the traps. I use the spring bar traps, the kind that used to be sold under the slogan, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” For the squirrels in the attic I used the larger ones. The slogan for the large ones is: “These will cut your fingers off.” I could pride myself on being able to set these traps and position them with the steady hands of a neurosurgeon or bomb defuser, but there’s nothing good about any part of the job.
In her poem “Woodchucks” Maxine Kumin, who is Jewish, goes from killing the woodchucks with poison gas to picking them off with a gun. She says, “the murderer inside me rose up hard,/the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.” There’s one old woodchuck who manages to escape, and she concludes, “If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” It’s not a perfect metaphor, although if it were it wouldn’t be a metaphor. The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is, “a rose is a rose is a rose”. There is no justification for the Nazi concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. Interspecies violence is, like it or not, part of nature, and often fundamental to survival. The squirrels don’t know this, of course, any more than Kumin’s woodchucks who saw her garden as an open buffet. When I set traps for the squirrels it wasn’t because of an irrational and unnecessary prejudice against them. It was because they could chew through an electric cord and burn the house down, which would mean we’d all be out of a place to live. And I hoped the squirrels would see the traps and leave. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way. I took several squirrels, their necks broken, to the garbage. When I found them they were dead, and I always hoped the end had been quick.
Then one night I found a squirrel still alive in one of the traps, struggling to get away, but badly injured. Its body was twisted and there was a gash down its back where the hard metal rod had cut it. I knew I couldn’t let the squirrel go. Even if it survived its injury, which wasn’t likely, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, even if it wasn’t attacked by other squirrels, it could get back into the house. And if it didn’t it would spend whatever life it had left in excruciating pain. I’d caused it to suffer and I had a responsibility to end that suffering.
I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I had to do either. I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted to make this as quick and merciful as possible for both of us. I nearly lost my nerve at the last minute. My wife had suggested I use a hatchet, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d actually have to look at the squirrel.
A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, “Be mercifully quick.” Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job.
After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard music. Someone a few houses away was in their backyard practicing “Jingle Bells” on a flute. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit.
I’m not Jewish. I’m not even religious in any traditional sense, but I know Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life–one day’s worth of oil burning for eight–coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. It’s a celebration by people who survived an all-out attempt to wipe them off the face of the Earth. I first learned about Hanukkah when I was a teenager, and met a rabbi as part of a Boy Scout project. I was supposed to learn about a religion other than my own. I was raised in a very relaxed Presbyterian church and could have chosen just about any other church, but I had a vague understanding of Judaism and wanted to know it better. I went to a local temple one afternoon when it was empty. First the rabbi took me to his office and started asking me questions. How long had I been a Boy Scout? What was my project about? Why had I chosen Judaism? It was nice to have an adult take an interest in me but also confusing. I knew “rabbi” was the Hebrew word for “teacher” and I was there to learn, not talk about myself. When he asked if I knew anything about Judaism I panicked. I should have done some cursory background reading before coming, I thought, or something. I admitted I really didn’t know anything and prepared myself for his disappointment. Instead he smiled.
“There’s no sin in ignorance.”
Suddenly I felt relief. I’m sure adults had told me that before, but it was not what I expected, especially from a teacher. I spent most of my youth feeling like I was supposed to know things that I’d never been told; everything seemed to be a test, and I frequently thought I was failing. At that moment I felt assured that it was okay to not know anything as long as I was willing to learn.
“Do you know any Jewish holidays?” he asked.
Since I’d learned about Passover in Sunday school I didn’t think of it as a Jewish holiday. Instead I said, “Hanukkah,” which I knew sometimes overlapped with Christmas.
“Do you know the story of Hanukkah?”
I still didn’t feel great about not knowing anything, but he smiled again and told me the story of the Maccabees, and the destruction of the temple, and how the oil that was only supposed to last for one night burned for eight, and Hanukkah is the celebration of this miracle.
Then he took me into the main sanctuary and showed me around. It was very much like other churches I’d been in, very much like the Presbyterian sanctuary I went to every Sunday, in fact, with pews and a raised section at the front, but with slightly different decorations. He explained about the Torah, how the ark that holds it is positioned so those who face it are facing toward Jerusalem. Then he pointed upward to the Eternal Light. It was just an electric light, made to look like a flickering flame, but the specifics didn’t concern me. I was captivated by the symbolism. I had only a vague idea of how unkind history, particularly the 20th Century, had been to the Jews but here, I thought, was the central symbol of a belief system built around hope.
In college I took a class on Judaism, and attended services at the local synagogue, and Passover seders in the spring, and, with a friend, lit the menorah candles for Hanukkah. One day while I was doing research for a paper in the synagogue library I sat in on a talk the rabbi gave parents about coping with, and hopefully preventing, teen suicides. He was emphatic that “l’chaim”, “to life”, wasn’t just a toast made at meals but a philosophy, that to be a Jew meant taking joy in life.
Before the talk started I happened to be reading about Hanukkah traditions, and how, over a thousand years ago, two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, had competing ideas about how Hanukkah should be celebrated. Rabbi Shammai said all candles should be lit on the first night and then one extinguished on each night as a literal representation of the diminishing oil. There’s a strange beauty in Shammai’s literalness, and I assume the growing darkness would end with a grand blaze. Rabbi Hillel said that one candle should be lit each night so on the final night all eight candles would blaze with glory. Instead of increasing darkness there would be growing light and hope. Hillel’s tradition is the one that’s survived.
None of this has anything to do with the squirrels, but it all came to me anyway. I was extinguishing a light, but I was glad there were others, in other houses, being lit against the darkness.
As I emptied the trap at the edge of the circle of light from the patio it seemed like the universe was conspiring to make me feel bad about what I’d done, but I accepted the responsibility. I’d even say I welcomed it, even if I wished the epiphany had come more easily. I can rationalize until I’m blue in the face. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. I don’t think squirrels are a cornerstone species, or that the disappearance of Sciurus griseus would tip the balance and lead to the extinction of homo sapiens, but being too casual about extermination threatens us all. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face my own role in squirrelicide.
I realized I’d have to take the ladder outside, quit my whining about my fear of heights, find where the squirrels were getting in, and seal it up. And ultimately the problem wouldn’t be fixed until we put on a new roof. It was up to me to keep them out, because ultimately that was the only way to prevent more deaths. I’m pretty sure that, somewhere in the contract, it says that I’m responsible for this because I’m the one with a memory, a conscience, and, for that matter, a big warm attic full of nesting material. It must be in the fine print.
And now, since Hanukkah is a celebration, here’s something that I hope will bring some light to the darkness.