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Essay: A bushy-tailed brush with nature

A telephone line is a squirrel highway in

A telephone line is a squirrel highway in East Norwich on March 27, 2003. Credit: Newsday/Bill Davis

My husband, Habibi, an artist, was determined to have a paintbrush made out of a squirrel’s tail. Not the whole tail, animal lovers, just a few hairs.

An interior designer who came to the United States from Syria in 2015, Habibi paints in watercolors as a hobby. The first time he saw a squirrel here, it had him at hello. He commented on the plush tail of this unfamiliar animal that climbs trees and eats acorns. He wanted to know whether Americans kept them as pets.

“Not allowed,” I said.

That was four years ago, and except for his periodic musings on how silky a paintbrush of tail hairs would be, we left the squirrelly topic alone.

But one day this past fall, I looked out at the backyard of our home in Hempstead. I saw a cardboard box propped up with a stick, and with branches arrayed in front. There were six slits in the top of the box — I assumed to help whatever might be trapped inside to breathe.

“Habibi!” I yelled.

I found him upstairs looking out the window. He was shaking his head in disappointment. “The squirrel is very clever,” he said. “He took the food out and turned the box over.”

“Not allowed,” I began, realizing this was not sufficient to block his desire to make a special paintbrush.

“Habibi,” I said softly, “you cannot catch a squirrel. You will not bring him in this house.”

He said he just wanted some tail hairs.

“Squirrels are dangerous,” I said. “They can bite and scratch you.”

My husband looked at me with a stubborn are-you-finished expression. He was determined.

The next day, he reset his trap with stale bread as bait. Squirrels approached — and easily removed the food without getting caught.

On day three, I saw a squirrel on top of the box. It sniffed at the holes, but did not go inside. The bait was gone. Squirrels 3, Habibi 0.

“Why don’t you just buy another paintbrush?” I asked.

“I need one made out of the squirrel tail,” he said. “The hair is very nice.”

“God made the hair for the squirrel, not for your brush,” I said. “That’s why you cannot catch him.”

He then watched me remove my calf-skin boots without pointing out my hypocrisy. I hurried away to begin dinner.

He tried again and again in the next few days, repositioning the box and bait. Still no squirrel.

One day, we went to the grocery store in South Hempstead and went off in different directions. Later, I was outside by the car when Habibi came out of the store with two boxes.

“Are these for your squirrel?”

He grinned while placing them in the trunk.

“You know, I will catch him, huh?” he said.

“I know you will not give up,” I said. “Just don’t get hurt. Just don’t hurt it.”

“Myla, I won’t. I know what I do. I will catch him, shave a little bit from his tail and let him go.”

“OK,” I said. This was resignation, not agreement.

In time, though, he gave up on the trap.

Then in December, I found a bit of fur wrapped in clear plastic at home.

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, with a smile. He explained that he had taken some tail hair from a squirrel he found dead in the road.

I worried that it might be germ-infested, but he said he had washed the fur and his hands — and had begun to make the paintbrush.

In the end, it did not turn out to be a proper brush, but rather than say, I told you so, I tried to see the whole experience from his perspective: He always accepts the challenge to create something beautiful.

Reader Myla Grier lives in Hempstead.


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