Touched by a Flying Squirrel?

The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice

Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council

“In nature nothing exists alone.”

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

— Rachel Carson


OK. This is embarrassing. I got excited because I saw a rodent. Understand, it was one I had not seen in nearly forty years. And then it was at night.

I had come to Ohio on serious environmental business. For a week, I was a sort of dignitary. I was a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and Great Decisions Lecturer at the College of Wooster. I had taught classes in environmental science and ethics, met with the student environmental group pushing for a new, long-range sustainability plan, and talked at length with the administrators who have implemented the progress that has already made Wooster a green campus – including a new LEED science building.

I was being guided back to my guest house across campus after my big lecture on the relevance of Rachel Carson today – pesticides, nuclear weapons, animal factory farming, climate change and justice, Trump attacks on science, and, yes, even a brief reference to Carson’s belief in the need for a sense of wonder for the world around us.

Wooster College campusThe quadrangle is lit by a bright half moon on an unusually warm winter evening. The lawns and brick paths to classic stone buildings are lined with large, labelled trees. Wooster is a kind of arboretum. It has been named a “Tree Campus USA” by the National Arbor Day Foundation. Recently, it has even planted nut trees – walnut, hickory, pecan — to provide for future generations.

Then I saw something scurry around the bottom of a magnificent oak tree, its trunk and bare branches backlit in shimmering, soft moonlight. “Is that a chipmunk?” I say aloud to my companion, knowing almost immediately that it is not — a little bigger, no stripes, tail bushier and held at the wrong angle. But way too small for a squirrel. It moves at speeds I have never seen before, far up the trunk and peering from a branch before I have even finished my thought. Then back down to our feet, around and up the trunk again. “There it is!!” my guide gasps, already an unbidden naturalist seeking some new species. “I think it’s a flying squirrel,” I venture tentatively. “I’ve only seen one once in my life in the 1970s. I thought it was bigger and darker.”

flying squirrelAnd. then, satisfied we mean no harm, a flying squirrel presents itself resting comfortably in a low notch. It peers at us, appearing inquisitive, yet calm. It has a cute squirrel head with large, dark eyes and a white belly amidst darker gray fur. Some very small flaps toward the sides give it a slightly triangular shape. “I hope it flies for us,” I say, somewhat awestruck, especially for a visiting nature expert.

I am cast back forty years when my wife and I would literally cross the tracks of the Chestnut Hill Railroad in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, to the wealthier side with large, old stone houses, mature trees, in search of better birds like wrens and woodpeckers, fewer sparrows, starlings, pigeons. It was there we saw our dark flying squirrel glide from ancient tree to tree. That moment lives in my memory, in my heart.

The flying squirrel is described, somewhat annoyingly, by scientists as common, though few people ever see one. The northern flying squirrel posed above us now is far from common. Two subspecies are already endangered from loss of habitat. The flying squirrel needs woods, old trees with cavities to nest in, ample supplies of nuts and seeds.

I stand silent now, gazing wondrously at this small, furry rodent who has revealed himself amidst a woods that has been saved and sustained for him, for us, and for the future.