Musical Squirrel

short stories

Doug Alt


News Flash: Squirrel Invents Musical Instrument

Our next-door neighbor (George), here in Wanamassa, was a school teacher who had a side business of renovating and rebuilding portions of customer’s homes. In support of this, he had outfitted his little backyard shed with electricity and used it as a mini-shop. From time to time, I would see or hear him doing various carpentry projects in and around his little shed/workshop.

One Saturday, I heard the loud sound of sawing coming through our kitchen window. It was a very unique sound, which I identified as being that of a hollow, thin-metal conduit tube being cut by a hacksaw. Any one who has been around housing construction would recognize it in a flash: rachhh.. rachhh..rachhh…rachhh!

I would hear the sawing for a few seconds, then silence, then more sawing. The cycle kept repeating for an extended period of time, long enough that I started thinking that this must be some really huge project that he was working on that would require so many cuts of tubing. Eventually, my curiosity was piqued enough that I started to mosey over toward his workshop, which was located just on the other side of the waist-high picket fence that separated our two yards, to ask him what the big job was.

I soon found out that he wasn’t sawing conduit at all…

To explain accurately the sight that came next to my eyes requires backing up a bit to present some background information.

Carolyn’s dog, Pepsi, had died about two years prior. When he was alive, Carolyn would occasionally obtain huge bones from the butcher, which we left outside in the yard where Pepsi would enjoy gnawing on them. After he died, three bones were left lying in various corners of the yard where Pepsi had last been exercising his teeth and jaws.

Over several months time, we happened to notice that the bones would occasionally be moved to different locations, more than once even up onto the crotch of a tree branch!

We soon figured out that the squirrels enjoyed gnawing on the bones since, as with all rodents, their teeth grow constantly and they have to gnaw on stuff to keep the ends worn down to a manageable length. It became a source of minor amusement to see where these bones would appear from time to time. We left the bones out there in the yard, rationalizing that it was much better for them to chew on those bones than to chew on our house.

Getting back to the time of our conduit-sawing story, as I approached the picket fence I could see that our neighbor George had a collection of construction ladders that was stored, neatly stacked in a flat, horizontal position, on a rack he had built right up against his side of the fence. There were several wooden ladders, topped by an aluminum one that had a flat aluminum diamond-pattern plate affixed to one whole side of the ladder. I recognized that this was actually not a ladder, but was of similar construction (other than the diamond-plate) to a ladder, and that it was used as a cross-piece between two other ladders in order to form a light, temporary scaffold for working on the side of a house. The stack of ladders, with the flat diamond-plate aluminum scaffold piece on the top, came up to right even with the top of the fence.

As I got closer, my ears told me that the sawing noise was emanating from the ladder stack, not from the workshop. But George was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, there, perched on his haunches on the flat diamond-plate aluminum surface, was one of our furry squirrel friends! He was sitting up erectly, holding one of the bones vertically between his paws, and gnawing on the bone.

Rachhh.. rachhh..rachhh…rachhh!

He had carried it across the yard, to the top of the fence, and then had positioned it, standing on its end, on the center of the flat surface.

“But”, you might say, “tiny squirrel teeth gnawing on a big bone can’t make very much noise”. Normally you would be right. But in this case, some strangely converging details came into play.

The aluminum scaffold piece, with its ladder-like hollow tubes and the 12-foot long flat side, happened to serve as a perfect sounding board, amplifying greatly any vibrations that might be transmitted into it. This is the same physical phenomenon that makes possible the violin, guitar and piano, wherein a small, quiet vibration of a thin string is amplified greatly by the sound-resonating body of the instrument to which it is attached.

The particular bone this squirrel had was about three inches in diameter, about six inches long, and each end had flat-cut surfaces. When placed on end, the flat bone surface made solid contact with the flat resonating board of the scaffold, and… Voilá! A musical instrument had come into being!

Every time the squirrel’s teeth would scrape across the bone, the vibrations from this scraping would travel down through the bone, across the solid connection to the resonating body of the ladder, whereupon the vibration would be amplified by the 12-foot long surface, and a very large noise would be radiated into the neighborhood!

The epiphany of this moment was the realization that I was seeing the exact way in which circumstances possibly converged to enable our pre-historic ancestors to discover, or “invent”, the first musical instruments. A rock accidentally dropped on a hollow log might have produced a surprisingly booming sound. An early human might have observed how two near-by trees made sustained screeching sounds as they rubbed together during certain windy moments, then put his imagination to work to experiment with how a pole or branch dragged slowly across the boomy hollow log might create a sustained, resonating tone.

Human intellect took this concept and refined it over the millennia to the point where we have orchestras full of musicians who scrape, pluck, pound on, and blow into the various resonating-body instruments, all of whom owe their existence to that first booming log.

I doubt that our squirrel gnawing on the bone had any idea of the magnitude of the event in which he was playing such a key part…

Speaking of “playing”, it seems that he only knew one note, but he sure could play that thing loud!