The squirrel absentmindedly chewed into the acorn. It was bitter, a little soft. She thought of herself as a bit of a gourmand when it came to acorns. She learned in her eight autumns exactly when acorns were best, and which ones lasted through a cold winter buried in the ground. She told herself that her memory was impeccable, that every acorn she buried she found.
This was not true, of course. It was how the Creator had made squirrels. If they remembered all the acorns, no new trees would take root. The only reason they remembered where some of the nuts was so they could survive to plant again for another season. Squirrels were designed to plant trees – nothing else. This is why their meat wasn’t safe to eat. Sure, in desperation, you could eat a few squirrels, but you had to be careful. Wild ones carried parasites. Hunters learned to take them after the first frost to be safe. Those who weren’t in a survival situation, not driven desperate by lack of food or money to buy it, would kill them, clean them (always examining the liver for signs of disease) and put them in the deep freezer to ensure any parasites were taken care of. But most people didn’t bother with squirrels. Too much work for so little meat. “Tree rats,” they were called, too. That was also a plan of the Creator. Have us not notice them, not even think of them as food, but as vermin. Not bad enough to be exterminated like rats, but enough to make you not have squirrel on the menu very often.
This squirrel had successfully made it enough years to plant all the trees that were necessary. Anything that she did after this was extra. Was this a form of squirrel retirement? Of a the sort. She didn’t know it, of course. She didn’t even know how long she’d been alive. Every day was her birthday in her mind. It was always a special surprise just to wake up, to traipse about the forest. Everything was a joy, because she had nothing to compare it to. Every day was a new day – not better or worse than the one before. She had no family that she knew of – all squirrels were her family. All worked together as the need arose. Sure, there were squabbles now and then, but they never lasted long, much as with people who were stoned. They couldn’t remember anything long enough to be upset about it. Life was easier that way.
This squirrel had a special gift. She was an artist. But just like with planting trees, she was unaware of who she truly was. She didn’t think of herself as a gardener, or an artist, or even a squirrel. She didn’t think of herself at all. Her mind was not filled with thoughts about what she should do next or how to do it. There is no internal monologue, no comparison, no angst. Every moment was the first moment, the only moment.
She finally bit through to the core of the acorn. In one sudden snap she discovered why it was so different from all the others – so dark so bitter, so lightweight. The acorn was hollow, eaten out at least a week before by a tiny worm. She’d not noticed the tiny hole it had left as evidence of its meal, like a tiny breaking and entering. He’d cleaned out the shell of anything valuable, carrying it away in his belly. Then the damp had gotten in and darkened what remained, turning it sour.
She stopped absentmindedly chewing once she reached the void that remained. This moment was new. It needed to be memorialized. It was simply different – not good or bad. While she had hoped for a meal, she got an opportunity to create. She put down the husk and scampered about to find something suitable to place inside. It would be a sign to whoever found it to slow down, to notice, to pay attention. She found the tender tip of an evergreen and bit it off. It took a little effort to get it inside the nut bowl. Then she placed another tiny leaf. Her artwork was done, her masterpiece of the day. She carefully placed it on a stone to the side of the path. It wouldn’t do to have it stepped on and crushed.
Unintentionally she had placed it at a crossroads in the garden. This was a place where the stepping-stones merged to a center point – a larger stone telling the visitor to stop. In the language of this garden it was as effective as a red traffic sign.
Three days later the visitor found the creation. She’d come to the garden to celebrate her birthday. A special day required a special event, and a trip to this garden on the other side of town was in order.
She was dazzled by her luck. While it was almost December, the Japanese maples and Bradford pears were still wearing their autumn best – all cranberry reds and pumpkin oranges. The starkness of winter had not yet reached this special place.
Her eyes were used to the special beauty of her birth month, with its blue skies as clear and clean as a mountain lake, and the lightning-bright bark of the white birch trees finally able to take center stage now that their leaves had disappeared. No, November’s joys weren’t flashy like those from March through August. Those born in her embrace had softer eyes, attuned to subtle beauty. They had to be, or else all they saw was gray and damp.
She’d been dazzled by the unexpected exuberance of the garden and stopped to catch her breath at the center stone in the garden. It was then that she saw it. Perhaps she had been primed by the tsukubai nearby.
It was filled with rainwater and submerged leaves – an unintentional autumn vignette. This tiny acorn husk, propped on a nearby accent stone, resembled it in miniature, a perfect complement to this particular Japanese garden, compact as it was.
There is something distinctive about Japanese gardens – everything is miniaturized, reduced down to the bare essence of what was needed to convey the required feelings of stillness and serenity. Their beauty lay in their carefully crafted design – just enough and not too much.
She stooped down to examine this tiny surprise and discovered the treasures within. What a marvel! In that moment she achieved satori. Perfection in a nutshell. There was no need to go through with any of her other birthday plans. This tiny unintentional gift was enough to keep her happy for the upcoming year. If it had been presented to her, it would not have been the same. An afterthought, an accidental surprise, a pause on the way to somewhere else – it was enough and everything at the same time.