Forty years ago I proposed a research project to answer this question: Do chipmunks follow set paths as they go about their nut gathering? This was high school senior year research bio class. I have no recollection of trying to justify the significance of that research question. I have no idea how I’d answer that. But Monsieurs Rehm and Cederstrom (R.I.P., lovely man) okayed the project.
I then spent very little time actually gathering data — which required sitting endlessly, motionlessly, in the park noting the movements of chipmunks I could in no way tell apart. I then, unsurprisingly with such little data, wrote a paper concluding there were no set patterns.
Now I find myself sitting in this chair (with the pleasure of having little else to do at the moment) almost every morning for the past two weeks out in this yard, with, as it happens, this chipmunk going about its business. From the hole in the brush behind me, it generally moves roughly south, pauses at a chair in front of the house, then disappears into the brush in front of that. Eventually, it returns, roughly from that direction, crosses the yard generally from the south, sometimes right along the edge of the house, or at least within five feet of it. It has many other paths, I know, as I’ve seen it rustling around across the road, or slipping into the outdoor shower and into the hole under that. But its return to this particular hole seems to follow a particular path. So lo and behold, I do think it has a general set pattern. Hunh.
I don’t know that I have much point here. Except that, you know, isn’t life funny?
In spite of my lazy approach to gathering data for that project, I have always been an observer. I had wanted to be a detective when I was a kid. Then a research biologist. Then I studied anthropology. Then public policy, which in a way is, if policy is well thought out, a combination of all those things. Then I studied poetry, which also, at least the poetry I write, is a combination of all those things: whodunit, and why, and what do we as a culture understand about it, how do we talk about it, and what can we make of it all.
If the chipmunk has a pattern then, as a predator, I could catch it. Or as a rival for its acorns, I could follow the chipmunk to its source and plunder. Or I can just notice. Maybe that’s what my role is here.
If human beings could be said to have some kind of unique role in life, maybe this is all it is — observe, note patterns, make art. And try not to kill too many things while we’re here.