December 13, 2015

Fortune favours the bold

In cities, the plants and animals that do well tend to be the ones that can somehow put up with the damage you and I cause to their habitats, in the form of litter, pollution and manmade buildings and surfaces. Pigeons, crows and magpies; rats, mice and foxes; buddleia, rye grass, rosebay willowherb and plantain: these are things that survive and thrive despite us, and it's a great shame that we tend to look down on them for it.

Grey squirrels have also proved clever and adaptable, and they are everywhere in London: back gardens and street trees, common land and waste ground. In several of the big, tourist-filled parks, like St James's and Kensington Gardens, they have become tame enough to feed by hand; this week I found that to be the case in a tiny urban park near my offices in Angel, too:

I'd seen a man in the park, standing and laughing as one ran up his leg; I went back the next day with nuts in shells from our Christmas bowl at home. Obviously, feeding animals salted or sweet foods is a no-no, but plain nuts for squirrels has got to be a good thing.

This fat little fella came to investigate me almost as soon as I knelt down. I didn't let him take the nut straight away, I made him climb up onto my lap. Once he had it he sat on my knee and turned it around and around in his paws, sniffing it carefully, and then scampered off with it in his mouth to cache it under a tree, patting some dead leaves down carefully over it with his paws to keep it safe.

Grey squirrels aren't rare, and it wasn't something that had taken much skill, but I felt elated after the encounter – just like the man was who I'd seen the previous day. It's no surprise; given the fact that nearly everything flees from us, voluntary contact with our fellow creatures has become vanishingly rare. We are outcasts, and rightly so; to be tolerated – albeit in return for food – felt like being briefly and movingly forgiven.