Archives For Walking

C.S. Lewis and Squirrels

October 31, 2019 — 7 Comments

One unchanging constant through the whole of C.S. Lewis’ life, was his love of nature. His affection for a creature frequently regarded as a pest, illustrates this perfectly.

In 1954, Lewis wrote playfully to the eight Kilmer siblings in the, the family to whom he dedicated The Magician’s Nephew. (Coincidentally, the thirty letters he wrote to these children recently sold for over $100,000.)

There is no snow here yet and it is so warm that the foolish snowdrops and celandines (little yellow flowers; I don’t know if you have them or not) are coming up as if it was spring. And squirrels (we have hundreds and thousands about this college) have never gone to bed for their winter sleep at all.

I keep on warning them that they really ought to and that they’ll be dreadfully sleepy (yawning their heads off) by June if they don’t, but they take no notice.

One can imagine the awe Lewis would have expressed at learning about the almost supernatural hibernations undergone by Arctic ground squirrels. Believe it or not, as they say, it is a fact that during their lengthy hibernations, curled up beneath the solidly frozen ground, the core body temperature of these small mammals actually hover around 3 degrees below freezing!

In 1941 he responded to a comment from one of his correspondents about unbridled nature.

I do know what you mean by the sudden ravishing glimpse of animal life in itself, its wildness—to meet a squirrel in a wood or even a hedgehog in the garden makes me happy. But that is because it is, being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.

That wildness would not be lost by the kind of dominion Adam had. It would be nicer, not less nice, if that squirrel would come and make friends with me at my whistle—still more if he would obey me when I told him not to kill the red squirrel in the next tree.

In the early 1930s, Lewis mentioned squirrels in several of his letters to his good friend Arthur Greeves. For example, he described a simple pleasure experienced during one of his daily walks.

I also had the experience lately of walking under an avenue of trees after a shower, and saw that tho all the rest was still, a kind of wave-motion was passing over the branches on one side, followed by a patter of drops. Coming nearer I found it was a squirrel leaping from branch to branch and sending a wake of tiny showers to earth as they bent under him.

Similar happiness echoes in a 1939 letter to another friend.

[During] my annual January walking tour with my brother . . . We had one glorious day crossing Wenlock Edge . . . with new snow on the ground and cloudless sunshine from end to end of the skies–beautiful shadows. And out in the country snow is a great betrayer. Rabbits and squirrels became as easy to see as bushes.

The tracks are rather exciting, too, aren’t they? To climb up some unearthly lane to a hill crest far from any house, still early in the morning, and find from the innumerable paw-prints how long ago the animals’ day has begun.

Squirrels in Narnia

Squirrels play prominently in at least two episodes in the enchanted land of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we witness a terrible scene when the White Witch comes upon a group of Narnians who are celebrating a visit by Father Christmas.

A little way off at the foot of a tree sat a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools round a table. . . . But when the whole party saw the sledge stopping and who was in it, all the gaiety went out of their faces.

The father squirrel stopped eating with his fork halfway to his mouth and one of the satyrs stopped with its fork actually in its mouth, and the baby squirrels squeaked with terror. “What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered. “Speak, vermin!” she said again. . . . Who gave [these things] to you?” said the Witch.

“F-F-F-Father Christmas,” stammered the Fox. “What?” roared the Witch, springing from the sledge and taking a few strides nearer to the terrified animals. “He has not been here!” At that moment one of the young squirrels lost its head completely. “He has—he has—he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.

Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand. “Oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t,” shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures . . .

On a happier note, in Prince Caspian we see how even the Talking Animals remain true to their species’ nature.

After that they went on till they came among tall beech trees, and Trufflehunter [the badger] called out, “Pattertwig! Pattertwig! Pattertwig!” and almost at once, bounding down from branch to branch till he was just above their heads, came the most magnificent red squirrel that Caspian had ever seen. He was far bigger than the ordinary dumb squirrels which he had sometimes seen in the castle gardens; indeed he was nearly the size of a terrier and the moment you looked in his face you saw that he could talk.

Indeed the difficulty was to get him to stop talking, for, like all squirrels, he was a chatterer. He welcomed Caspian at once and asked if he would like a nut and Caspian said thanks, he would. But as Pattertwig went bounding away to fetch it, Trufflehunter whispered in Caspian’s ear, “Don’t look. Look the other way. It’s very bad manners among squirrels to watch anyone going to his store or to look as if you wanted to know where it was.”

Squirrels certainly know how to chatter. In 1955, C.S. Lewis shared with a regular correspondent, his idea of a perfect world. “I’m all for a planet without aches or pains or financial worries but I doubt if I’d care for one of pure intelligence. No senses (no relish of smells & tastes?), no affection, no Nonsense! I must have a little fooling. I want to tickle a cat’s ears and sometimes have a slanging match with an impertinent squirrel.”

The Most Significant Squirrel in C.S. Lewis’ Life

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis describes an early encounter that exerted a profound influence in the shaping of his identity. It came not from a living specimen but, as I have written about in a different context, from a fictional member of the Family Sciuridae. Lewis describes the opening of his mind to the pursuit of true Joy.

Then came the Beatrix Potter books, and here at last beauty. It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . . in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.

Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world [Boxen] was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. Thus if we use the word imagination in a third sense, and the highest sense of all, this invented world was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were, and I will now try to record them.

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire.

And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible—how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

Rereading some of Lewis’ words about these entertaining creatures has taken me on an enjoyable journey, and not only because I share a similar rodent legacy or because our forest home is located on Squirrel Place. Lewis’ vision of the place of animals in this world and the next resonates with my sense of God’s relationship with this portion of his creation.

After all, it was our parents, not theirs, who brought about the fall. Thus Lewis’ sentimental thought that they are, “being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.”

overtounDo not take your dog to Scotland. And, if perchance you do, by all means avoid the Overtoun Estate.

Its relatively short span masks its danger. The waters flow fifty feet below it’s arch, and they carry echoes of a terrible mystery.

What is it about the Overtoun Bridge that causes dogs to leap over its parapet to their deaths on the rocks below?

Before considering that question, it is worth noting how dearly dogs love to go for walks with their people. This comes as no surprise to those who have had dogs as members of their families.

Some people who have never lived with dogs, however, are unaware of just how powerful this drive is. There is but one thing a dog loves more than a good walk—and that is a good meal. (For a dog, a “good” meal is any and all meals.) In fact, some canines love walking so very much that they would willingly delay their repast if able to precede it with a vigorous hike.

C.S. Lewis was an avid walker. He often undertook long sight-seeing hikes with friends. And, during different periods of his life, he enjoyed the company of a canine companion.

In January of 1940 Lewis describes one such trek to his brother. Warnie, a “regular” officer in the British military had been recalled to active duty and dispatched to France. He describes an inter-species encounter his dog Bruce had recently experienced during an Oxford walk.

It seems almost brutal to describe a January walk taken without you in a letter to you, but I suppose “concealment is in vain. . . .” I was coming home from a walk and had just reached the Bourdillon’s hedge when I saw Bruce standing across the path with his head erect and his tail wagging furiously.

There is a very slight bend to the right in that path just after the Bourdillon’s, so that I could not see what he was looking at. Presently a cloud of steam in the frosty air appeared to descend towards him-to be followed by the long grave face of the mushroom-white horse who lives in that field.

Dog continued looking up and horse’s head leaned down till their noses almost touched: then they withdrew with every mark of mutual esteem. Now that I have at last written it down it hardly seems worth much: but it was an odd sight at the time.

Curiously, two months earlier (writing to Warnie) he had alluded in passing to the fact he was frequently accompanied by a pet on his walks.

Wednesday I lunched in College and attended a College Meeting, which was over by about 3.30-after that the rare pleasure of a dogless stroll & tea in our own rooms, glancing through Mammy’s old copy of the Water Babies, and after dinner the unusual pleasure of an evening to myself.

There is something about having a dog accompany one on a walk that makes it an even richer experience. Observing their frenetic joy at discovering some new scent is vicariously exhilarating.

When walking in certain locales, leashes may be required. Certain impetuous dogs demand their use even when not mandated. However, most people who accompany dogs on their explorations would prefer to leave them free to range a bit, if given a choice.

And it precisely this freedom that poses such a danger to those who enjoy the Scottish countryside and dare to cross the Overtoun Bridge.

Apparently, since the 1950s, more than fifty dogs have lunged to their deaths over the edge of the bridge. A 2006 article in the Daily Mail reports that during a six month period the previous year “Five dogs jumped to their deaths. All of the deaths have occurred at virtually the same spot, between the final two parapets on the right-hand side of the bridge, and almost all have been on clear, sunny days.”

Strangely, there are even several cases where dogs who had survived the terrible fall proceeded to dive from the same location during a subsequent crossing. Lacking nine lives, it is assumed their luck did not hold on the second occasion.

Due to the frequency of these “suicides,” the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent a scientist to investigate the cause of the heartbreaking phenomenon. He determined it was nothing that the dogs could see or hear that would account for their fatal actions.

Various theories have been posed. Some attribute it to ghosts or the fact that “In Celtic mythology, Overtoun is known as ‘the thin place’—an area in which heaven and earth are reputed to be close.”

Psychic Mary Armour took her own [psychic?] labrador for a walk along the bridge to test the theory. However, she reported no unusual sensations. “Animals are hyper-sensitive to the spirit world, but I didn’t feel any adverse energy.” In fact, Mary said she experienced a feeling of “pure calmness and serenity” but admitted that her dog did pull her towards the right-hand side of the structure. (Daily Mail, 17 October 2006).

The SPCA investigator eventually concluded the most likely cause for the suicidal impulses of the canines was the scent of mink musk from the valley below. Apparently to some dogs the lure is irresistible, and they cast aside their normal wariness to leap into the unknown.

Whether or not this is the true cause of the mishaps or not remains debated. Some, for example, attribute the suicidal impulses to “picking up on suicidal or depressed feelings of their owners.”

Whatever the cause, it is probably wise to avoid the risk and steer very clear of Overtoun Bridge if you value the life of your dog. Still, when traveling to Scotland it may well be wise to leave your dog in the care of a family member or an approved kennel.