Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Shadowy Tale

Apologies to Beatrix Potter

ONCE upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They were visiting Wise Old Owl near the big oak tree one warm May evening. Cottontail had a question, “What is a Squirrel please, Wise Old Owl?”

Wise Old Owl had no time for squirrels and, as it was getting near hunting time, he decided to not answer the question.  Besides, apart from some leftover vole, he had not eaten since breakfast, and the sight of these baby rabbits was making him feel hungry. He bent his right wing and looked at it as though he was wearing a wristwatch; “I think that it’s too late to go now, but tomorrow morning why not visit the University and ask some of the very wise people that you can find there?” Owl pointed with his wing and, in the distance, the young rabbits saw a vision of gleaming spires.

“Thank you” said Cottontail as the four young rabbits started to hop homewards.

“While you are there why not ask a really interesting question like ‘what is the meaning of life’” hooted Wise Old Owl in an attempt to be witty as well as wise, but he feared the young rabbits were not listening. ‘Nobody really understands me’ he thought to himself.

The next morning Old Mrs Rabbit gave the children wholemeal bread and bramble jelly for breakfast and saw them out of the burrow with a smile on her face. As a single parent, a morning of peace and quiet was just what she needed.

“Don’t go near Mr McGregor’s garden” she called, but they were too excited to listen to her. They had never been allowed to go as far as the University before and it was a great adventure. Each baby rabbit had taken a packed lunch with them except Mopsy, who had inadvertently left hers on the kitchen table. On reaching the University they agreed to split up, each rabbit going in a different direction. They left a small pile of rabbit droppings as a marker to meet up at later in the day (rabbits do that kind of thing you know ~ even very anthropomorphic rabbits).

Peter (who had guessed that a squirrel was some kind of animal) made straight for the Life Sciences Building and, being a lucky rabbit, he found a professor of Genetic Engineering sitting on a bench with a laptop open on her knees. Peter cleared his throat, causing the professor to look down at him.

“Excuse me please. But can you tell me anything about Squirrels?” said Peter.

Sciurus carolinensis or Sciurus vulgaris?” asked the professor.

Peter looked a little confused at this answer and wasn’t at all sure that he knew what she was talking about ~ he decided to answer “Yes”.

“Well it doesn’t make too much difference in respect of the genome. Let’s see if I can link with my database from here....ah...just a moment...there we go!”

Peter peered at the screen of the laptop as it was placed in front of him;

“We are obviously trying to identify some complementary palindromic triplets said the professor, but looking up, she noticed that Peter had gone. In fact, he left the campus and made straight for Mr McGregor’s garden, having remembered  that a row of young carrots that he had been watching for some weeks were just ready to eat that morning.

Flopsy was sure that she could find out about Squirrels at the library so off she hopped. The steps of the library were far too steep for young rabbit paws so Flopsy started to look for the wheelchair entrance. She saw a student coming down the ramp in a wheelchair with a lap full of books.

“Excuse me, please,” called Flopsy “have you got anything in your books about Squirrels?”

The student was a kind young man and wanted to help so he started thumbing through his books, looking up the word ‘Squirrel’. It seemed a very long time before the student had found anything.

“Oh yes, here’s something” he said. Clearing his throat he read; “The word squirrel, first specified in 1327, comes from the Norman esquirel from the Old French" escurel, the reflex of a Latin word sciurus. This Latin word was borrowed from Ancient Greek word σκίουρος, skiouros, which means shadow-tailed, referring to the bushy appendage possessed by many of its members. The native Old English word, ācweorna, survived only into Middle English (as aquerne) before being replaced. The Old English word is of Common Germanic origin, with cognates such as German Eichhorn ,Norwegian ekorn, Dutch eekhoorn, Swedish ekorre and Danish egern......”

“Thank you” interrupted Flopsy trying to disguise the fact that she had understood very little of what the student had said. “Does it say anything about what a squirrel looks like?”

“No...I ..don’t think ....let me check another book.”

“No please, don’t trouble yourself ~ I have taken up too much of your time already.”

“My pleasure” said the student and went on his way. As Flopsy watched his wheelchair continue down the ramp she decided to go and lie in the tall grass and eat her lunch. She hoped that Peter, Mopsy and Cottontail were having more luck than her.

Mopsy had discovered that her lunch was missing and, like all small rabbits are most of the time, she was hungry. She hopped around the campus until she found a kitchen with a rather rotund woman in a white coat and hat, standing outside.

“Please may I ask you a question?” asked Mopsy. (The woman looked very interested indeed.) “What can you tell me about Squirrels?”

“Why, I can tell you lots ~ come with me” Mopsy willingly followed the woman through a door and found herself in a busy kitchen. The woman was now thumbing through some sheets in a folder.

“Here we are,” said the woman “Southern Squirrel stew, Squirrel spit-roast, Squirrel and onion gravy... I've got lots more. The student restaurant budget has just been cut for the third time in a row and I’m always looking for recipes with a cheap source of protein.”

“I’m a vegetarian” said Mopsy quietly. The cook looked a little annoyed at this.

‘Vegetarian counter over in the corner’ she said. Mopsy started to fantasize about diving into a salad bar and slowly eating her way out. “Egg curry with boiled rice today” said the woman, who was now running her thumb down the blade of a seriously sharp chopping knife.

“I’ll take a rain check on that, but thank you” called Mopsy as she run to the doorway and out of the building. She decided to find Peter ~ perhaps in Mr McGregor’s garden she thought.

Cottontail had a frustrating time that morning, finding herself too shy to ask anyone about squirrels. She decided to find a lovely spot to eat her lunch, and before long she found a lovely quiet place at the edge of some nice woods. On a bench sat an old gardener who looked so kind that Cottontail was not afraid and she sat down in front of him.

“Hello” said the old gardener kindly “are you going to eat your lunch here?” Cottontail was about to answer when the gardener put up a finger to his lips for her to stay quiet and then took a piece of the sandwich he was eating and threw it towards the base of a tree. Cottontail watched as a small brownish-grey animal with a huge bushy tail came down the tree, picked up the piece of sandwich and started to eat it.

“It’s so beautiful” whispered Cottontail “What is it?

“It’s a squirrel.” said the gardener “I always share my lunch with them ~ they come everyday to see me”. Cottontail was too thrilled to talk so she and the gardener just watched the squirrel until it had finished eating and quickly run up the nearest tree.

After a long chat about squirrels and all kind of things, it was time to go. As she was hopping off she turned to the kind old gardener and asked “By the way do you know the meaning of life?”

The old gardener thought hard for a little time and then said “No ~ but when I have a difficult question to answer I get on with my work, then I come here and sit quietly in the sunshine, I enjoy my lunch, look at the trees, and watch the birds and animals and ..oh yes, I feed the squirrels”.

Cottontail hopped away, happy with her day. Meanwhile Peter was getting into trouble ~ again!

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012


The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

The best thing ever written about squirrels;

Some very non-vegetarian squirrel recipes:

What's Hay Quaker up to this week

Frozen ground and freezing me! Unable to dig even a leek out of the ground this week. Below -10'C on three mornings in the garden. Luckily a freezer full of last summers vegetables plus bottled fruit means we continue to live off our land even in the depths of winter!


  1. I loved that.
    Wonderful: erudite, charming and nicely tongue in cheek.

  2. That was a wonderful story! I enjoyed it very much. My first childhood book was Peter Rabbit. Yes, I agree, nicely tongue in cheek.

  3. Brilliant. Brilliant!

    Loved it :)

  4. I enjoyed it too. Hoping you'll resume posting soon...