Last week brought perhaps the holiest day to our campus, a day of reverence and devotion for the furry friends that scamper around us. Yes, Squirrel Appreciation Day had arrived, and for the one place in the world where the usual nuisances are daily acquaintances, this day was a reminder of just how weird campus really is sometimes.
It was a day celebrated on the University’s official Instagram with a post by two people in squirrel masks hilariously giving random hugs and high fives to students on the Diag, courtesy of the brilliant people behind @umich_squirrels. With an official mascot no longer existing in the wild in our own state, it seems we have turned to some other furred quadrupedal creature to suit our needs. We’ve replaced one of the most ferocious creatures in the wild — the wolverine — with another whose biggest claim to fame is bringing down the NASDAQ Stock Market twice by being electrocuted from running on power lines.
Then not only do we make enough of a spectacle about squirrels that one of our librarians has taken 11,000 pictures of them, but we create an official school club dedicated to feeding them.
I had tenuous relationships with squirrels before coming to college. They went to terrorizing lengths to gain entrance in the trash cans in our garage, to the point where we had to trap them in our own yard and release them at a park. I once hit too many wiffle balls over the fence when I was a kid, and knowing I would get grounded, I decided to blame it on squirrels stealing all the balls instead. Another time, one got trapped in our garage while we were gone on vacation and over a few days went full X-Men Wolverine and clawed a full two inches through brick trying to get out. Perhaps the strangest was the day I got home from school and was met face to face with a squirrel just chilling on my living room couch — still can’t explain that one.
So arriving on campus and watching the ballooned versions of the creatures that people in my neighborhood once killed with rat poison was perhaps the largest culture shock I would experience. While Ann Arbor is full of college students subsiding on the ramen noodle diet, the most well fed creatures in our city were football-shaped rodents with a bushy tail.
It defied all common sense, but so have squirrels for the greater course of their relationship with humans. Back home, squirrel roadkill was regular enough that you were bound to see one every block, with rotating animal control trucks coming to shovel them up. One would think that natural selection would eventually cause the demise of squirrels dumb enough to dart straight into the path of a moving car, but nope, the miracle of nature finds a way again.
The squirrels here in Ann Arbor escape explanation for all the opposite reasons. During football season, SBNation writer Spencer Hall took his first trip to Ann Arbor to cover a game and the first thing he tweeted was “First Michigan observation: BOLD SQUIRRELS.” I had a friend from North Carolina visit for the first time over the summer, and the first thing he did when we walked into the Diag was spend 10 straight minutes running after our squirrels trying to catch one. He failed.
I asked a lot of hard questions. How are the squirrels so revered here? What did they do to deserve it? If God made everything, did he really make squirrels too? What is the meaning of squirrel life? How can I become aware to this fullness of truth in devotion to this campus wildlife?
I grappled with questioning this existential reality. I tried buying a Michigan Squirrels shirt. I even tried to feed one once, but it wouldn’t come near me, perhaps sensing my apprehension. I looked up to the trees and asked them to speak of meaning and answers to the continual confusion.
It hit me one day. I was walking through the Diag, heard a snap and looked up once more to the trees. Falling from the skies was both a large branch and just behind it a squirrel. And it hit me. The squirrel hit my shoulder, rolled off onto the walkway, and scampered away as I stood there in awe.
Every day I still walk through campus and stare at the squirrels, forever in awe that however round they may be, they can still scurry up and down trees with such swiftness. Some things just have to be experienced and left unexplainable, perhaps something even as inconsequential as our squirrels.
David Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.