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Reasons Why Squirrels are Smarter Than I Am (Part 1 of N)

April 10, 2008 at 2:52 pm

I have learned, over the course of many years, that I am less intelligent than the average squirrel on a college campus. Like during that morning many years ago when I was convinced -- convinced -- for a few short minutes that squirrels could read. And that they were politically conservative.

You know that feeling where something you see or hear causes the gears in your brain to seize up? That's what it felt like.

It was the autumn, my first quarter as a full-time student at the University of Minnesota. (The U of M was on the quarter system until around 2000, I think, when it switched to semesters. I still mourn the quarter system.) A drizzly, foggy morning in late September. The kind of fog that dampened the sidewalks in long, dark streaks.

So anyway, there I was, walking across Northrop Mall, awkwardly early for a 9:00 class (History of Science). I'm sure I was feeling very, um, collegiate at that moment: surrounded by stone pillars and neoclassical campus buildings, wet leaves underfoot, lovely Northrop Auditorium in front of me, backpack slung over my shoulder. (Northrop, incidentally, was designed by the same architect as the Widener Library at Harvard, and is in fact almost identical to same; two years after this I watched a scene from a Joe Pesci movie get filmed here, because the filmmakers used the location as a stand-in for Harvard.) Since this was, after all, 8:30 on a college campus, the place was dead quiet. Except for the rumble of the #16 bus pulling away from Coffman Union, and the sound of my own footsteps echoing across the Mall. And... this quiet, intermittent rustling sound.

I'd walk a few paces, stop, listen, walk a few more, listen again... I was about 2/3 of the way along the mall, outside the Tate Lab of Physics (where I'd spend much of my life in the next few years) when I realized the sound was coming from behind one of the round message-pillar-thingies scattered across the Mall. One of those things you see on campuses-- permanently covered several pages deep in concert announcements, lecture announcements, film festival announcements, ads seeking roommates, ads selling third-hand furniture, and just about anything else people decided to post. I suppose some of that is done online these days. This was in the Dark Ages of the internet, before the World Wide Web, long before things like Craigslist and Facebook and Myspace. At least a year, in fact, before the U of MN rolled out email accounts for all students.

Something was rustling papers behind the message board, where I couldn't see. Since I had plenty of time to kill, I took a little detour to satisfy my curiosity.

The bottom of the message board, at about knee height, was plastered with paper signs featuring a simple message:

Squirrels Unite!

And the rustling sound arose from a single squirrel that was systematically tearing down these signs.

My brain...


...froze up.

I mean, the tableau spoke for itself: a call for squirrel solidarity, and a squirrel that apparently felt this kind of Socialist propaganda was unacceptable on a college campus. (Seriously, it was 8:30 in the morning. What would you have thought?)

Later in the day, or maybe the next day, I figured out what had happened; there was a perfectly logical explanation for what I had seen. But right at that moment I lacked two crucial pieces of information. Standing there, alone in the fog and drizzle on Northrop Mall, I would have sworn up and down that damn squirrel could read.

True story.


Richard April 10, 2008 at 8:17 pm
I hate those little buggers. I have a family of them in my attic, fat and snug and living high on the hog on my dime. I hope part N describes how they all died in a fiery cataclysm.
Ian April 10, 2008 at 8:21 pm
Part N describes how they decided to start pooping on my desk, as a "thank you" for stealing my lunch every day. That was 7 or 8 years after Squirrels Unite, though. They upped their game over time, you see.
S.C. Butler April 11, 2008 at 5:11 am
If I ever get around to writing the Bees od Brooklyn, literate squirrels will play a big part. They are out there.
Ian April 11, 2008 at 9:27 am
I imagine the literate squirrels produced ad copy for your moviegoing mice, too.

Don't the squirrels in Brooklyn carry tasers?

Ty April 11, 2008 at 11:41 am
And are extremely adaptable. They've moved into city life like they were bred for it. One day, they will discover fire. Then we're boned.
Ian April 11, 2008 at 10:08 pm
I figure the squirrels will just wipe us out with bubonic plague first. Then, as you say, they'll discover fire and wipe out the remaining pockets of human resistance.

The few human survivors of that post-apocalyptic wasteland will become slave labor in the vast, subterranean acorn mines.

Ty April 12, 2008 at 12:52 am
I for one welcome our new rodent overlords.
Ian April 12, 2008 at 10:06 am
I for one welcome our new rodent overlords

One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them.

S.C. Butler April 12, 2008 at 11:44 am
No tasers in Brooklyn. Being cowards, the squirrels hide in the trees. The rats rule the streets.
Ian April 12, 2008 at 6:54 pm
Could be worse. It could be flying snakes inhabiting the trees of Brooklyn.
Richard April 13, 2008 at 10:13 am
Nothing is worse than squirrels, except maybe flying squirrels.
S.C. Butler April 14, 2008 at 8:46 am
Pigeons are worse than squirrels. Flying rats we call them.
Sara G. April 22, 2008 at 3:27 pm
Now see this is interesting because I too had a sentient squirrel moment on the U of M campus one day, walking away from Northrup Auditorium. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a squirrel wearing a pink scarf. Like something out of Beatrix Potter. I looked again with my whole eye this time and saw that in fact it was a squirrel carrying a crumpled piece of pink paper in it's mouth. Perhaps carrying messages for an early Squirrels Unite meeting. Very clever of them to use PINK paper. Very reverse psychology of them, hiding in plain sight.
Ian April 22, 2008 at 5:28 pm
Perhaps carrying messages for an early Squirrels Unite meeting. Very clever of them to use PINK paper.

Hmmm... This would have been around the same time, plus or minus a year at the most... and again, near the Auditorium. All these years I've been discounting the experience, but now that I'm confronted with new evidence I have to reconsider. Their use of pink is, as you point out, rather damning.

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