Listening to the Trees: Squirrel Business

Chelsea Johnson

Between the SLUG and Greenfire houses grows an old black walnut tree, very straight and very tall. It is old enough to produce nuts that fall heavy to the ground in fall, covering the grass, slipping the unsuspecting. The squirrels love this tree.

They ripple up and down the trunk, swirling around its roots, arguing with each other in the speckled shade. When I walk by, they scamper away to the safety of nearby bushes, and when I am not there, they bound across the grass in the never-ending pursuit of food.

Unknown to them, these squirrels are prophets of a value inherent to the natural world. By pursuing their squirrel lives with little regard to my own, they remind me of a very important lesson available from the natural world: every spark of life and crumb of the world has intrinsic purpose and worth outside of anthropogenic value frameworks.

Whether it be an untamed forest or neighborhood park, natural settings give us the rare opportunity to be immersed in a world that is turning by its own wheels, that thrives and dies by its own mechanisms, choices and motivation.

The world does not exist to please you. Moreover, it does not exist to entertain you, to make way, to give you anything. But neither does the wild world exist to hurt you. It is not there to teach you a lesson, to show you pain, to make you feel lost and scared. It simply exists.

Humans are, of course, part of the natural world. We did not descend from space to foul a pristine land because we are evil, nasty creatures, as the more cynical among us may believe. Like anything else, we evolved to suit our niche, and we have succeeded in doing so.

But in our success we have created a modern life that, perhaps for the first time in history, has cut many off from the connection to a natural world that has not been shaped, sculpted or paved for our use.

We have become too good at creating entire landscapes and lives that are completely catered to human needs. Our cars have thousands of radio stations to give us exactly what we want to hear as we drive on roads that take us exactly where we want to go. In this kind of bubble, it’s easy to believe in the illusion that the world exists for human needs alone.

But even an experience with the natural world as simple as watching squirrels race over my yard reminds me that to those squirrels, this is not my yard. This is the world beyond myself, and it exists without human justification.

Recognition of this fact is not only critical in reevaluating how the environmental movement progresses, but it has important emotional significance as well. Being in settings without anthropogenic intentions releases some of the pressures of expectation found in manmade settings.

It is also a very comforting and exciting thing to realize that the world and all its life will never be completely the design of human intention, that there will always be a wild world to explore. It is thriving with life that I am uniquely a part of.

Crediting the natural world with its own intentions gives us a unique advantage point from which to see our own life. We have the chance to see our actions as not just propagating human goals, but actions that fit within a community that includes other forms of life.

With that realization comes both a sense of belonging in the world, but also the responsibility of making sure our actions answer not just to ourselves.


This project made possible, in part, by the Helen Bar Rudin Grant