On Listening, Gun Violence, and Squirrels

The morning after the terrible incident of mass gun violence in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, I did what I do every morning. I took my whole self, alternately weeping and fuming, outside to sit with the squirrels and find some solace in the other-than-human world.

But there were no squirrels scampering to meet me, the bearer of a container full of peanuts. I could hear them, though. From the trees came alarm calls – the shrieks of grey squirrels, the scolding chatter of the reds, and, closer to the earth, the “chip-chip” of chipmunks. Even the blue jays interjected their caws to help with the warning.

I did not see one, but a predator must have been close. Hawks and other raptors have swooped in on more than one occasion, owls sometimes roost in nearby trees, and fox and coyote come by. The message that something had made the normal morning nut gathering unsafe was repeated in the trees and everyone stayed away.

While the cacophony of squirrels continued, I reflected on listening. Humans, in general, are poor listeners. The world we have created is loud. There are too few places where one can go to escape the noise of motor vehicles, the hum of electronics, or the overhead rumble of air traffic. We make desirable sounds, such as music and movie and television audio, even louder so we can hear over the background sounds. When we try to hear each other, we are often saying, “What?” and repeating ourselves.

Even when we can hear one another, there is little listening. The alarm cries about gun violence have been raised for decades by those who have recognized the danger and want us all to be safe, but they aren’t repeated until the danger is gone. Instead, some hear, “Hawk!” and think, “I’m okay. The hawk is my friend,” and belittle the fear felt by those who know better. Calls for change stop and we go about our days while the hawk circles above us, watching and waiting.

The excessive number of guns in the United States is not the only issue of importance right now, of course. It is just front and center in my mind the day after another gun was used in the way it was intended to be but against those who were not acceptable victims. And, as usual, there is a good deal of yelling and pleading and very little listening by those who would rather we are all easy prey than interrupt their daily gathering of wealth and power.

We are not squirrels, of course, and comparing us humans to them is simplifying a complex situation so I can come to my own understanding of it. As I am soothed by nature, I am also informed by it. I believe the other-than-human beings can teach us much about being better humans.

What I’ve learned about squirrels is that they listen to each other, and even to those who are of different species but face the same threats. Because none of them are safe until they are all safe.

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