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Squirrels, chickens and the unexpected

Squirrels, chickens and the unexpected

Eric Frydenlund

Eric Frydenlund

OPINION  Sometimes the unexpected drops out of the sky. Well, from that general direction, at least.

I was walking our dog, Fargo, and my son’s dog, Uecker, at the park when we heard a rustling in the trees above us. Fargo and Uecker stopped and looked attentively skyward. We spotted a squirrel scampering across the branches, doing a remarkable impersonation of a daring circus high-wire act.

Suddenly, a dead branch below the squirrel’s feet snapped and the rodent came tumbling down and landed between the dogs just a few feet from their noses.

In a dog’s perfect world, this qualifies as a winning lottery ticket. No need to chase a fluttering tail across the yard or around a tree when the prize ticket lands at their feet. But like most of us when good fortune suddenly appears, there ensues a moment of incredulous disbelief. The squirrel used this moment to flee safely into the forest with Fargo and Uecker in belated pursuit.

We live our lives with the unexpected occasionally dropping in on us. I got a call recently from our electric utility informing me I had won a $10 credit in the National Cooperative Month drawing. Gosh. I never saw that coming.

The unexpected arrives like a thunderbolt in the rain of routine in our lives. Routines give us solace, a predictability to our lives that doesn’t require much angst or thought, like watching “Forest Gump” for the 10th time. We know the ending.

Yet we don’t need squirrels dropping in to find novelty amid the mundane. I’ve witnessed thousands of sunsets. Yet each is unique. Each has a different hue, a peculiar shape presented by the clouds, a different intensity endowed by my mood. Each comprises a different now.

We can place ourselves in the vicinity of the unexpected. Get up off the couch and take a walk in the woods. Walk the trail in the opposite direction to see the forest from a new perspective.

Today, the rain has washed away the fall colors in the forest canopy, giving way to the layered colors of the underbrush.

Nature offers us layers of chaos. Life and death, growth and decline reside in close proximity. We walk as the woods allow us. We find new angles of approach where straight lines and right angles don’t exist.

The unexpected emerges from this chaos in the moment. Routine flows from patterns shaped in the past.

We have no guarantees that our daily routines will continue unabated. Because we are part of this world, we cannot be considered objective observers. David Hume, the 18th century philosopher, called it “the problem of induction,” or the assumption that the future will resemble the past.

Bertrand Russell, the British writer and thinker, compared this to a chicken living on a farm: “The chicken noticed that the farmer came every day to feed it. It predicted that the farmer would continue to bring food every day. Inductivists think that the chicken had ‘extrapolated’ its observations into a theory, and that each feeding time added justification to that theory. Then one day the farmer came and wrung the chicken's neck.”

The chicken might have said, “Gosh. I never saw that coming.”

We are all chickens on a farm. But short of getting my head chopped off, I find joy in not knowing what’s coming next. It adds spice to the everyday experience. After all, you never know when a squirrel might drop in for a visit.

Frydenlund lives in Prairie du Chien:

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