Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Out of the Ordinary

I took a moment the other day to stand on my deck watch two gray squirrels chase each other around a giant oak in my backyard. They ran in fits and starts, stopping for a split second now and then to flick their tails before taking up the chase again. Their ability to follow each other closely at hyper speed on a vertical surface amazes me in the same way flocks of birds do when hundreds swoop and turn in uniform precision.

From trunk to branch and back again, the squirrels scurried around the tree in a frantic race to nowhere. Because they are able to run and react at such high speed, at least from a human perspective, it sometimes looked as though they were a single animal connected by an invisible thread.

And they seemed so fearless. They would chase each other out to the end of a branch that had the circumference of a toothpick, then effortlessly grab or jump to another reed-thin branch twenty feet off the ground and scamper back to the trunk. It made you wonder if the laws of physics applied to these gravity-defying squirrels. Maybe all squirrels are flying squirrels.

After a few more laps around the trunk, squirrel one ran out on a branch to the very tip. There it hesitated for a heartbeat, then jumped to a telephone line, grabbing it with two front paws in a gymnastic maneuver that would draw applause at the Olympics. It then swung from the line to a lower branch, jumped, twirled once in the air, and stuck his landing in the snow. It all happened in about a second, but I believe I witnessed an event that was daring even by squirrel standards.

I say this based on the reaction of the second squirrel. As it had done many times before, number two followed its playmate out to the end of the limb. Instead of instinctually following the leader, however, squirrel two stopped and started and stopped again, clearly uncertain if his friend’s leap of faith was worth the risk. I could sense the angst as the squirrel made repeated journeys to the end of the limb. He was either trying to muster the courage to jump or excoriating his partner for such a jackass stunt. In the end, squirrel two returned to the trunk to greet his daredevil buddy. The chase picked up right where it left off, and the two squirrels became indistinguishable again.

I had observed something remarkable in a very unremarkable event. It reaffirmed for me the difference between “seeing” and “observing.” Even though we see things every day, we miss a lot of extraordinary things because — using film terminology — we merely pan instead of focus. When you take a moment to focus, you find there is really no such thing as the mundane or ordinary.

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