I can offer no scientific proof for this, but after my encounter with them this afternoon I’m fairly certain that squirrels can feel joy.
In the morning I’d set up a portable photo blind at the edge of our yard beneath a sheltering fir bough, loaded my hideout with a canvas chair, tripod, and camera, pocketed a Clif bar, and moved in. Would the black-tailed doe and her two-day-old twin fawns appear out of the tall grass as they had the previous evening?
Instead of seeing deer I heard the waking songs of birds—a Western tanager, just once and far away, the tiny pips of the well-hidden, and a pair of robins arguing over an insect. And then a neighbor started a wood chipper. Three hours later it was lunchtime.
At one o’clock I returned to the blind and an explosion of gray squirrels. Young ones, not yet fat and antisocial, and looking for fun. My blind sat at the epicenter of their playground. There has never been a swarm of laughing children more animated and full of themselves as these squirrels.
“Race you to the top of the hill!”
“Race you back!”
On they went, tirelessly, bounding in time with the lively breezes in the Ultimate Game of Tag. Ten of them passed in a wave in front of the blind, headed for our house, only to return moments later.
When their energies wound down a bit, one lay in the grass with its legs thrust out, thoroughly enjoying the soft un-mown comfort. And I was suddenly remembering the lawn I helped make when I was ten years old and my family moved into a new house. I could feel the heavy weight of a wheelbarrow loaded with dirt clods, the tingle of sprinkler water against my face as the smoothed brown soil was tended at the end of summer, and the wonder, as I waited, of what would grow there.
As that squirrel discovered, it was thick, deep green, and cool, and for an instant I could smell its freshness again across half a century.