Sunday, April 09, 2006

My Little Prince

How much like fiction is life.

". . . One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes. . . . It’s the time that you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important. . . . You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose. . . .” from, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Once a week, we visit the squirrels in the old churchyard behind Hackney Central Station. I don’t even know the park's proper name. The tower of the old St Augustine’s Church presides over the park. It is all that is left of the church. Illegible, moss covered tombs dot the paths and greens. Thin, flat tombstones lean against the walls, stacked four or five deep. It’s an ill-cared for little park. A forgotten place. A mere path to the local Tesco's. But, there is a certain beauty to it.

It became one of our favourite places to visit after I broke my toe in December. Winston and I could grab the bus in front of our gate and get off at the entrance. Door to door service works very well for a person with a broken toe. Winston could run and play. I could sit on a bench. We would feed peanuts to the squirrels. They were really grateful.

Sometime around late January, we realised that the squirrels knew us. Winston skipped into the park - singing and laughing. I’d hobble along behind, rustling my bag. The squirrels ran over to us. They have little ‘hand gestures.’ They’ll run towards you. Stop. Stand up on their back two paws. Tap one of their front paws to their chest. If you cluck or rustle the bag, they’ll run to you and get their peanut. Then, they run off and eat it. Eventually, they took the peanuts right from my hand. Finally, they’d just sit and eat the peanut right next to us.

On occasion, they displayed bad manners such as: chasing other squirrels off or being greedy. At these times, we’d move off. We’d find the poor little fellow who’d been run off and feed him. Sometimes Winston ran around and screamed. They learned that this had the benefit of getting rid of the pigeons. Eventually, the squirrels only ran a small distance away and let Winston take care of their competitors.

At the beginning of March - right when I had begun to despair that Winter would ever end - the squirrels frolicked madly. Their crazy happy dance of Spring gave me great joy that day. And hope - something I’d been missing for a long time. Winston and I laughed a lot that day. The Squirrel Ballet was an excellent production.

But, in mid-March, tree and bush cutting began. The squirrels became skittish and scarce. So we were forced to try to find them. Since my foot is less painful these days, we ambled a little deeper into the park.

There we found a walled garden. Its gates were open, so we went inside. Winston loved it. One day, we spent an entire afternoon sitting on the edge of an abandoned old pool or fountain. We poked the three inches of water that were inside. We pushed leaves around and found stranded worms. We rescued about five worms, that day.

Once we’d rescued the worms, we discovered a whole flock of wrens living in some thick climbing bush that grew along the side of the wall. They were excellent to observe. But, we had to keep our worms safe until they were able to get under cover.

Funny - who we choose to protect or not protect. We choose squirrels over pigeons and worms over wrens. I’m not sure why.

Each week, we noticed more and more trees coming down; rose bushes being ripped out; and the wren’s home completely obliterated. So we walked around looking for answers. We found a board describing plans for refurbishing the park. It seems like a great idea. They are even putting a playground in our secret garden! We’re just sorry our friends are getting displaced.

Things became busy. The weather lifted and we didn’t visit for awhile. Yesterday, Winston and I went to visit our friends again. They aren’t as comfortable anymore. All of the habitat destruction has made them wary. Can you blame them?

It took about a half hour of keeping our bodies quiet, but we managed to help them remember us. They were eating out of hands again! I was really proud of Winston. He has learned when to be still and when to be frenetic.

A nice older couple came along with their grandchild. They observed us for awhile. I offered them some peanuts. But, the squirrels wouldn’t take them from them. Not to be outdone, the man got some chocolate. Squirrels like chocolate! (Smart creatures.)

So many children pass through the park and try to chase the squirrels. Or mothers hustle their children along. They don’t stop and notice this vibrant world. But, yesterday, so many people stopped and tried to help us feed the squirrels. Most had to toss the peanut. One couple kept taking pictures of us feeding the squirrels. They couldn’t believe how tame they were (for us.)

Several older children discovered that it is so much more satisfactory to be in harmony with nature than in dominion over it. They learned how satisfactory it is to find the quiet inside of yourself, so that a wild animal will trust you enough to take a peanut from your hand.

I worry what will happen once the park is finished. Will they still have a home? Will they remain tame with the increased foot traffic? Are we endangering them with our friendship?

I remember that chapter from Antoine de Saint Exupery’s book where the Little Prince tamed the fox. My little prince and Saint Exupery’s little Prince have much in common. I sincerely hope, however, that they have different endings. (Given what is going on with his teeth and the NHS here, I can’t count on it.)

Still, it was a great day - observing how much Winston has learned and how much he can teach others. We are responsible for all we tame.

(I took pictures of our friends. They'll be developed soon. Stay tuned.)

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