The River Valley Squirrel Man

Old man in blue suit jacket and cabbie hat facing away from camera towards green leafy tree and long grasses


Mindful walking has become an intergral part of my self-care and practice. Wherever I am, home or away, I look for suitable walking routes that eventually become daily journeys of letting go, miniature pilgrimages of sorts.

Music or no music, podcasts or no podcasts, the little camera on my iPod, I’m lightly equipped to sing, dance, move, take photographs, go quickly, go slowly, stop. It’s really a versatile form of exercise and enlightenment. My clumsy side is even offered a small measure of protection as I’m usually not moving fast enough to to run into anything (hard).

Feeding the Squirrels

Last year in Edmonton, my route took me down through the River Valley at 109th Street, across the pedway, up the stairs at the Royal Glenora Club (which kicked my butt every time), through the Legislature grounds, and back across the High Level Bridge. I would often trek back down into the River Valley westward after cresting the stairs. Lots of green, lots of quiet away from traffic, and lots of small wildlife.

One day I noticed an old man filling three bird feeders on an ancient elm. He wore an old suit coat with patches on the elbows, his white hair was wispy, and his posture appeared a bit stooped. I’ve never denied that I’m a people-watcher. Curious about the scene before me, I hung back on the trail and observed for a few minutes.

It didn’t take long for a squirrel to appear. Squirrels are populous where I live in Caslan, and the fight to keep them out of bird seed, garbage, compost, or anything else edible is on par with battling bears. They are cheeky, stubborn creatures that will find ways to get what they want no matter what. The daily interactions between the squirrels and our old chihuahua, Scooby, is free entertainment all its own.

Instead of chasing this particular squirrel away, the old man laughed, reached into his pocked and pulled out a handful of peanuts still in the shell, and said “You didn’t think I forgot about you, did you?”

Laying them on the thick branch, the old man made sure none fell off and stepped back. He waited patiently for the squirrel to notice, just as I waited patiently for the man to continue his work. We were all watching and waiting together in the same space, all for different needs and reasons.

As the squirrel began grabbing the peanuts one by one, running away to store them each time, the man offered a sigh of satisfaction, picked up his now-empty birdseed pail, and walked up the side trail towards the crest of the river valley. It was a brief encounter, but one that left me filled to overflowing. One man in the park looking after the smallest of God’s creatures — such a simple scene to offer so much light and life.

What I Needed

After I returned home that evening, I began to feel a little bit uneasy allowing myself such joy in watching the Squirrel Man. It wasn’t that watching him was wrong so much as…myopic. I’d turned a human being into a caricature in order to fill an empty space within myself.

David Adam, in his book ‘Mirror Images: Seeing Ourselves in Other People’, writes, “Too often we lose contact with people and surroundings, and with God, because we do not given them the attention they require for us to know them.” We sometimes see people using a single mirror rather than through a complex web of lenses.

I needed to see quiet connection, creation care, and gentleness. At the time, I was working as a student chaplain trying to complete a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s demanding work. Finding peace and joy in simple moments was vital for me to keep doing what I was doing.

But in needing that, I only saw what I needed or wanted to see: the Squirrel Man.

The Squirrel Man

This man had a past, present and future; he had relationships and memories and communities he was a part of; perhaps he was part of the Legion or a bird-watching club or a church choir; perhaps he had a spouse, children, or grandchildren.

He had hurts and sorrows, and he most certainly had mistakes and pain he had caused; and he definitely had a name. What right had I to collapse the entirety of who he was into a sliver of identity based on what I needed?

Who We Are or What We Need?

I wasn’t wrong for enjoying what was quite obviously a pleasing moment for this man and the squirrel. In fact, the greater sorrow would have been to turn away and ignore it. What I failed to do in the moment was see the man for who he was, and remained in the space of my own needs.

I do this out of habit. How many do I refer to as ‘Doctor’, ‘Sergeant’, ‘Professor’, ‘Mommy’, ‘Daddy’? It’s certainly not wrong for a child to refer to their parent with a special name, identifying the nature of their relationship. But that doesn’t mean the parent is a mother or father alone. I certainly hope my mom doesn’t think of herself as my own mother alone!

Sometimes I worry how long (or short) it will take before people see me as ‘Pastor’ rather than ‘Erin’. I’d much rather be known for myself than an office. And yet delineations for the sake of integrity and health aren’t always bad all of the time either.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I needed to see some creation care and gentleness in myself but finding such wonder and joy in their expression from another person. What was missing in me? Who did I need to be for the world?

Unexpected moments of the holy occur regardless of my own state, of course. Their nature is to be unexpected! But in my unexpected holy encounters, how can I see the Other with lenses that show me greater detail and honesty?

Seeing The Other

Adam goes on to say, “No one is reducible to to one aspect of his or her life…We must always respect the fact that any person that we encounter has thoughts and secrets and life beyond our knowing. In meeting with anyone, we are confronted with a deep mystery and an ‘otherness’.”

Adam isn’t condemning holy moments with other people at all. In fact, his entire book is devoted to learning to see ourselves in other people. What he does suggest is that in my observations, interactions, and everyday life, I remember to see the whole person rather than the small fraction of what is offered to me.

I may not be able to see it or know it entirely — following the Squirrel Man back to his home in order to discover him would have been entirely inappropriate (not to mention creepy on my part) — but the practice of acknowledging another person’s humanity, whether I know the details or not, helps me see others for the delightfully complex and broken humans that we all are.

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