Across campus, a scene of bloodless carnage – limp bodies flat on the ground and draped over branches. When I cluck, heads turn and eyes brighten, and when I hold out a peanut, gray puddles of fluff resurrect. Squirrels are hurting in the prolonged dry heat of Houston, and are assuming oddly human poses to salvage a little relief. One sits regally upright in a gnarled throne of live oak root. Another molds himself along the length of a lower oak branch, tail curved along his back, and others lie prone like weaponless snipers on the shaded soil beneath shrubs.
We feel sorry for them but this isn’t the first summer of unrelieved heat, and squirrels adapted to this sort of thing long ago. Like rats, they have sweat glands only on their feet. They have a higher surface-to-mass ratio than humans and radiate heat more efficiently than we do. They shade themselves with their tails, which, though puffy with fur, are skinny appendages that readily disperse body heat. The word “squirrel” is rooted in two Greek words for “shade tail,” an etymology familiar to Thoreau. In a journal entry for Oct. 5, 1857, he writes of a red squirrel:
“He gets down the trunk at last on to a projecting knot, head downward, within a rod of you, and chirrups and chatters louder than ever. Tries to work himself into a fright. The hind part of his body is urging the forward part along, snapping the tail over it like a whip-lash, but the fore part, for the most part, clings fast to the bark with desperate energy. Squirr, `to throw with a jerk,’ seems to have quite as much to do with the name as the Greek skia oura, shadow and tail.”
The verb “to squirr” is new to me. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “to throw or cast with a rapid whirling or skimming motion,” and cites a 1711 usage by Eustace Budgell (1686-1737) in The Spectator: “I saw him squirr away his Watch a considerable way into the Thames.”
Budgell rang a distant bell and proves himself a footnote to superior writers. The Oxford Dictionary of Nation Biography informs us:
“The Scriblerian satirists had already identified Budgell as a soft whig target, and Pope in particular mocked his dependence on Addison, manic self-obsession, and litigious failures (in The Dunciad, `Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot,’ `Sober Advice from Horace,’ and other poems).”
To his friend William Fortescue, a lawyer and judge, Alexander Pope writes in a Sept. 17, 1720, letter:
“You are a superior genius to me in rambling: you, like a pigeon (to which I would sooner compare a lawyer than a hawk), can fly some hundred leagues at a pitch; I, like a poor squirrel, am continually in motion indeed, but it is a cage of about three foot; my little excursions are but like those of a shop-keeper, who walks every day a mile or two before his own door, but minds his business.”