This is a revised version of an essay originally titled “Live And Let Live” I offer each year on the first night of Hanukkah.
The squirrels have stayed out of the attic. At the start of every Hanukkah I think about this because several years ago we had a squirrel infestation. There was at least one family nesting in the insulation. The scrabbling sounds that woke us up in the middle of the night were a minor inconvenience, as was the possibility the squirrels were using whatever we had stored up there for nesting material. A bigger problem was that they might be tearing up the insulation, as was the possibility that they might chew through wiring which could start a fire and burn down the entire house, leaving all of us without a nest, and unlike the squirrels we couldn’t easily move to a clump of leaves in the nook of a tree.
So I unfolded the rickety wooden ladder and climbed into the attic through the door in the hallway ceiling. I was able to chase some squirrels out but that was a temporary solution so I also took some traps smeared with peanut butter. I used 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.” Since we were dealing with squirrels, though, I used the size intended for bigger animals. These had the slogan, “These will cut your fingers off,” and could be sprung from ten feet away by a good sneeze. I discovered dexterity I never knew I had and set the traps carefully, hoping they’d serve as a deterrent and convince the squirrels to move out. I wasn’t so lucky. I had to bag a few bodies, their necks broken by the steel bar, and carry them to the garbage then reset the traps, trying not to sneeze.
Then one night I found a squirrel still alive in one of the traps. It was struggling to get away but badly injured. 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 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. My wife suggested I use a hatchet but that would mean I’d have to look at the squirrel, I’d have to aim carefully, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. 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.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, for both of us, to be mercifully quick.
After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard a flute playing. Someone a few houses away was in their backyard practicing “Jingle Bells”. 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. It may not be the highest of holy days but it’s usually celebrated around the solstice, and there’s something fitting, even poetic, about candles being lit against the darkness on the darkest nights of the year.
I first learned about Hanukkah when I was a Boy Scout and working on a project about religion. I was supposed to learn about a faith other than my own. I was raised in a very relaxed Presbyterian church and because I wasn’t particularly religious then either I could have picked just about any other Christian sect and had friends who were Catholic and Baptist and Methodist, but I didn’t know any Jews. I’d read stories about Jewish families and traditions. The minister of our church had a sign on his office door that said, “Shalom!” I decided I wanted to know Judaism 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, but I hadn’t done anything to prepare. I admitted this 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. The first time I went I picked up a prayer book and opened it. On the first page there was a short story about the prophet Isaiah, who stood at the door of the temple and said, “I cannot go in, this temple is full.” The people looked in and said, “There’s no one in the temple. Why do you say it’s full?” And Isaiah said, “The temple is filled with prayers that are not sincere. Only prayers offered from the heart will ascend into Heaven.” Again I felt that deep sense of hope. Faith, the ultimate expression of hope, is worthless if it’s not sincere.
I went to services at the temple several more times, and took part in 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.
In my studies of Judaism I kept going back to Hanukkah and its traditions. I read 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 even as in other houses flames were being offered up against the darkness. 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 what I was doing. I thought about a poem by Maxine Kumin, who was Jewish, called “Woodchucks”, about her efforts to protect her vegetable garden. She opens with a quick description of first using gas, “The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange/was featured as merciful, quick at the bone,” but it doesn’t work and over the poem’s thirty lines she quickly escalates to shooting them, “The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling/to the feel of the .22.” One woodchuck evades her and in the end she laments, “If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” This is the danger that comes from being too casual about death. She feels herself becoming her own worst enemy.
It’s not a perfect metaphor. The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is from Gertrude Stein, also Jewish, who wrote, “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. The Biblical land of milk and honey is called that because, in theory anyway, called that because nothing has to die to provide them, but we can’t live on milk and honey alone. Part of the web of life is death.
As a counter to that I also thought of a poem by Gerald Stern, also also Jewish, called “Behaving Like A Jew”, about finding an opossum shot and lying in the road. He says, “I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death./I am going to behave like a Jew/and touch his face, and stare into his eyes.” What exactly he does next isn’t clear, other then moving the opossum off the road, but what is clear is that he refuses to let a death pass; he is going to mourn the loss of a life so small and seemingly unconnected to his.
I didn’t reset the trap in the attic that night, or again. Something in me had broken, but in another strange coincidence the squirrels left and didn’t come back. There were still a few traps up there at either end of the attic, where I’d balanced carefully on the rafters and tried to avoid stepping through the insulation, but they stayed empty. Maybe the injured squirrel had frightened the others away. Maybe it was just a coincidence. If I were religious I might believe they knew I’d prayed for the killing to stop and that because my prayer was sincere it rose up.