Sunday, July 15, 2007

Such Agreeable Friends

Our book today is “Such Agreeable Friends” by Grace Marmor Spruch, and it stands as wondrous testimony to one fact above all others: libraries are not only the chief adornment of any civilization, but they are, all of them, the very place where serendipity calls home.

Even bookstores can’t claim that distinction: the arrangement of their wares is designed, after all, and the goal of the design is to separate you from your money.

Not so libraries, who are so unconcerned with such worldly matters that they arrange their stock according to alphanumeric systems so arcane that cracking them requires the skills of both the cryptologist and the math prodigy (someday, when there’s more time, we’ll regale you all with stories of the original category system for the Boston Atheneum ... it’s stuff to keep you up a-nights). A big city’s big library will baffle even frequent visitors, who will find themselves clutching a slip with call-letters scrawled upon it, wandering down one aisle and up another.

They may find their book unassisted or they may not (we here at Stevereads always succeed on first try, but lesser creatures - and you are all lesser creatures, remember - never have that luck), but in any case, magic happens along the way. Serendipity intervenes.

Books are found the searcher never guessed existed; books are found that never see the inside of the average used bookstore, let alone a retail shop concerned with a financial bottom line. It is a sight universal to libraries of any size: patrons, once intent on a specific errand, stopped, halted, ensnared in some aisle by a book that caught their eye and now holds their attention.

Such was our fate one stormy day when we found ourselves wandering the aisles of the public library of Philadelphia and came across “Such Agreeable Friends.”

The book is an entirely winning account of one Greenwich Village couple’s encounter with a group of wild squirrels in their fifth floor walk-up.

It starts innocuously enough, with a squirrel making an appearance inside the Spruch’s apartment and demanding food. Anyone who’s ever had a walk-up apartment in New York City can attest to the fact that New York squirrels are the most brazen, opportunistic, and even quarrelsome members of their much-maligned race. They take no guff, they ask no favors, and even their handout-begging in Central Park seems bossy and distracted. They are the superstars of the squirrel world, and they know it.

The Spruchs encounter these superstars head-on, and the result is a unique and thoroughly spellbinding example of amateur natural history at its best.

Amateur natural history meaning personal observations, without recourse to statistics or field hands or tracking collars. The best of natural history, really: a smart person with a simple and abiding passion for watching things. There are wonderful books written by humans who watched swans, cranes, snow geese, humpback whales, coyotes, African elephants, mountain gorillas, beavers, wolves, great white sharks, gulls, bumblebees, and of course dogs and cats - and all shall get their mentions here, in due time (after all, the Internet is eternal, and so are we). But right now, our matter is squirrels.

Inevitable, ubiquitous squirrels, simple, ordinary squirrels - except that the best amateur natural history makes you see things you’d previously ignored or dismissed, to find wonder in the mundane. Certainly for American city-dwellers, there can be no animal more mundane than squirrels: they skitter over every tree of every public park, they display their peculiar habits for every visiting tourist, and most people never given them a second thought.

Thank the gods the Spruchs in their fifth floor Washington Square walk-up gave squirrels a second thought, or we all would be lacking one singularly joy-inspiring book.

It begins simply: a few squirrels, a few nuts left out on a window sill - a novelty, really, although Grace Spruch admits readily to being a lifelong lover of animals:

“Creatures - all - have power over me. When I rode horses, they sensed immediately that I could never touch them with a twig, let alone kick them. They would ignore my entreaties and stop for lunch, long drinks. Murderous ones tried to rub me off - and out - on trees, or to decapitate me on low-lying branches. I had no power over them, I didn’t blame them. Why shouldn't they try to get rid of this burden on their back if they could? I spoil all animals rotten.”

Reading that last line, readers might think objectivity would be scarce in “Such Agreeable Friends,” but by a very happy chance, the exact opposite turns out to be the case. Spruch is a pushover, yes, and she gives all her squirrel guests somewhat goofy names designed for mnemonic ease, but when it comes to observing, she’s a natural-born naturalist, entirely scrupulous and eagle-eyed for every minor detail. Indeed, Spruch’s readers have two treats in store: first and foremost, that wonderful, personal, and very rare experience of sensing immediately that as a reader, you’re in good hands, and second, that she would rather not write at all than write one word that wasn’t accurate to what she watched every day.

It need hardly be stated that she immediately learned no two squirrels are alike. A cast of regulars begins to take shape, and as the squirrels become more accustomed to the handouts, they become more demanding (often waking the Spruchs by knocking on the window, on those mornings when the couple had the nerve to sleep in past ‘opening time’) and more bold (rummaging around, burying nuts in various locations around the apartment, and most charmingly, hanging around to consume their meals indoors, before rushing back out into the semi-wild world of Manhattan). Grace records it all in minute, charming detail, and the most charming thing about it all is the lack of deep philosophizing. If she can’t figure out why a squirrel is doing some peculiar thing (and, like humans, they do peculiar things all the time), she says so and moves on.

As with any regular cast of characters, certain individuals begin to stand out: gentle, unassuming Sweetie, wise and patient Notchko, calm and enterprising Slim, and above all a slightly weird, undeniably intense squirrel rather aptly named Genius. Grace is, as she’s told us, a softie for all animals, but the reader can’t help but come away from “Such Agreeable Friends” feeling that of all the one-pound little visitors to cross her path, Genius was the most special, the most memorable.

In the course of the book, the reader will learn a very large amount about the physiology and natural history of squirrels (Spruch unobtrusively sprinkles the results of her own research throughout the text), but it’s the book’s unapologetic compassion that stands as its single best feature. To those of us who’ve gone out and experienced it ourselves, she’s preaching to the converted when she writes:

“Some of the best things in life are indeed free. The pleasure to be derived from a gust of wind on a sunny spring day, the sight of a golden retriever looking back to see if you are following on the trail, the sight of the muscles on the shoulders of a sturdy little rodent, all are God’s gifts - joy to mankind. And the people who can experience these joys are blessed.”

So the next time you’re in your local library, look for “Such Agreeable Friends” and add it to the armload of other unlooked-for gems you’ve no doubt already found. You won’t be disappointed.


Sam said...

Hmm, why don't more people befriend squirrels, since they're so rampant in suburbia? Instead, suburbanites have chosen to go to WAR with them, over the territory of the birdfeeders. My family has spent more time and imagination on thwarting local squirrels from getting at birdseed than I spent choosing a college. (Also, when I was young, my mother told me that if a squirrel ever tried to get inside the house, that meant it was rabid.)

Kevin Caron said...

I had heard that if a squirrel gets inside your house, he'll tear it up like Russian spies looking for the secret microfilm in a straight-to-USA-network movie...

While my family did go to some lengths to keep the squirrels away from the birdfeeders, much prefering the cardinals, hummingbirds and (snicker) tuffted tit-mice, my wife & I don't feed the birds now, so we can enjoy the squirrels without prejudice.

They like to bark at us when we're in 'their' backyard.

beepy said...

I could really relate to this Stevereads seeing how I do much the same thing with the rats that live in the alley beneath my windows. There's Skanktail Ralph, who comes in through the window every morning at precisely 6:35 to kiss me gently on the lips and ask for his morning tea. Brokenback Betty is especially angry if there are no leftovers to consume and will run up and down my bed leaving evidence of her displeasure. Snotnosed Ivan will go through all my pockets looking for rotting fruit or molding coughdrops. How I love my time with them.

beepy said...

One summer I visited my parents and slept on their open air porch. I woke up one morning just as the sun was starting to rise and sitting right at my eye level was a squirrel eating a pine cone. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle, although to the squirrel it was just his morning breakfast.
It's sad to think that some people will never have such a moment. I'm glad that I got mine.

Sam said...

Snotnosed Ivan! Beepy, have you been somehow reading my very private diaries?