Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 8, 2009

Nature Boy Stares Down a Squirrel

Took my weekly walk in Harms woods this morning, along the north branch of the Desplaines River. I usually walk on the muddy, sometimes rocky horse trail instead of the paved bike trail, both to save my knees as I walk extra fast for cardio work, and because it feels so much more natural and less road-like.

Early on I came around one bend and –instead of a billboard or some litter, thank God– I spotted a great blue heron perched on a log laying across the river. I almost missed it, but then realized what that grayish flash in my peripheral vision had been. So I walked back, hardly breaking stride, and tried to walk in place as I watched it perched there. 

It only stayed a few moments, though, perhaps spooked by my heavy breathing. Or perhaps it had fulfilled its purpose, attended its 9am meeting with mankind, delivered its package of beauty and reminder of grace by just being noticed, and now was simply moving on to its new assignment. (On the other hand, I’m probably over-romanticizing, since I did see it again briefly on another river log a half mile further up the trail, but this time decided to leave it be.)

When I reached the trail bridge over the river, I crossed it, then ducked into the woods to sit for awhile in a sort of clearing I’ve spent some meditation and reading time in several times this summer. I found a spot on the opposite side of the river from where I had just been, near the bank, and opened my book (Soulcraft, by Bill Plotkin, which is very much about experiencing God and one’s deepest spiritual purpose through encounters with nature). But I spent as much of the next half hour reading the terrain around me as I did reading the book.

At a certain point, I noticed a gray squirrel on the small island in the river, almost directly across from me. It seemed like it wanted to cross the water on the fallen tree off to my right, but I was seated too close to the tree, and in my big bright red fleece jacket, I did not look the least bit trustworthy. So it backed up off the fallen tree and went up a smaller living one on the island, to check me out.

Its tail was twitching like mad, and I wondered for a moment what the biological purpose of all that seemingly wasted energy is, for this and almost all squirrels. But clearly it was still watching me very intently– maybe trying to figure me out, since it was not a backyard squirrel and did not encounter humans very often (and certainly not humans sitting still, doing nothing). That made me think that the raised, twitching tail might be a nervous habit (like its warm-up for the fast retreat it would make if I moved toward it, like a baserunner leading off first, rocking back and forth on his legs). Either that, or else the twitching was its attempt to look fierce and ready to fight.

Nevertheless, I did not move, and soon the tail-twitching slowed up some. Then we just sat there goofily staring at each other for another two minutes or more, till finally it broke the reverie and decided to move on. Since it still had to get off the island, it proceeded off to my left about seventy feet, where there was another downed tree, and took that alternate route to get to wherever its other morning meeting was.

On my walk back out of the woods a few minutes later, I encountered an old Asian man walking his dog. Funny thing, though: he was barefoot, even though it was about fifty five degrees and drizzly. He held his boots in his right hand, and he was walking on the crushed limestone path, …gingerly of course, probably in a bit of pain. Still, I was amused, and said “I like your idea” as I walked swiftly past him.

“You should try it,” he replied in a friendly way. And I decided on the spur of the moment that he was right, that I really should put my money where my mouth is and actually make physical skin-to-skin contact with the earth, not just read it like a book or use it up like a commodity, like my own private Bally’s Total Fitness walking track. So I stopped about a hundred feet further on, and took off my own shoes. He was closer to me by now, and said it was not easy to walk on the crushed limestone, but most of the horse trail was just mud and easier, smaller-cut stones and pea gravel.

“Walking barefoot like this,” I said, pointing to my own feet as we ambled on at a leisurely pace, “can be sort of another way of praying, for me.” He smiled and nodded slightly, but said nothing more about my idea. By now though, we were almost at the trail head, near where I would have to turn off the path and walk along Lake Avenue to where my car was parked a couple blocks away.

So I started off to the east through the tall grass, still barefoot, and we said our goodbyes. I could tell he was disappointed that we wouldn’t have more time to talk. After all, he had made a “barefoot convert” out of me, so I suppose we had sort of a relationship now. But I was resolved to get back home, to keep my schedule. Maybe I’ll see him again soon, though.

So I went out into the woods by myself today, but made three new friends while I was there. It was a much needed reminder that none of us is alone in this world. We just have to know where our friends are most likely to be found, and be ready to give and receive what little we have to offer.



  1. I love the concrete details in this post. If you’re ever short a submission for writers’ group, I think they might enjoy this.

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