From the apocalyptic imagery of its opening lines to one of the most evocative descriptions of bureaucratic residue I’ve read, very few articles about our electrical grid have captured my imagination quite like “Squirrel Power!” It’s a story about power outages caused by squirrels, and it’s a strong contender to be one of my favorite pieces of journalism of this year.
While it doesn’t have the same import as last weekend’s also-brilliant (and definitely more grave-feeling and timely) “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask,” it’s worth pointing out that it is much, much better than its frivolously punctuated title might lead you to believe. Jon Mooallem’s use of imagery is about eight levels better than it needs to be, and his use of acronyms recalls their humorous deployment in The Princess Bride. On the journey between the Thus spake Zarathustra by-way-of Mel Brooks opening and the perspective-shifting final paragraphs, cheek and statistics abound. Spokespeople from utility companies and townfolk chime in from South Carolina, Montana, and Michigan. And squirrels pop.
Some of my favorite passages (with added emphasis):
I wind up hearing a lot of the same snarky jokes. People say the squirrels are staging an uprising. People say the squirrels are calculating, nut-cheeked saboteurs trying to overthrow humanity. Like the apes in “Planet of the Apes,” or the Skynet computer network in “The Terminator,” the squirrels represent a kind of neglected intelligence that’s suddenly, sinisterly switching on.
And while gruesome, the phrase “lingering, second wave of obstruction” that necessarily describes the nature of the problem just sticks in the mind, a fully-formed beauty. (Everything after and including the words “dead weight” also recalls Monty Python.)
But if the squirrel doesn’t fall off the equipment — if its charred carcass is lodged there — the squirrel can trigger a so-called continuous fault, interrupting the restarted flow of electricity all over again. It’s a zombie attack: a lingering, second wave of obstruction. The lights go out when our electrical grid can find no way around this stuck hunk of dead weight that used to be a squirrel.
This passage about navigating public records to study this issue is unexpectedly rich:
What exists, instead, are only flecks of information, the partial outline of a very annoying apparition.
And this is the first of those aforementioned final paragraphs. “Natural order” is a pretty loaded term, but since he’s writing about nature (and the way squirrels’ teeth grow), I’ll withhold my usual cringe:
A power outage caused by a squirrel feels so surprising only because we’ve come to see our electrical grid — all these wires with which, little by little, we’ve battened down the continent — as a constant. Electricity everywhere, at the flick of a switch, seems like the natural order, while the actual natural order — the squirrel programmed by evolution to gnaw and eat acorns and bask and leap and scamper — winds up feeling like a preposterous, alien glitch in that system. It’s a pretty stunning reversal, if you can clear the right kind of space to reflect on it, and fortunately power outages caused by squirrels do that for you by shutting off your TV and Internet.
Another paragraph begins: “There have been very few squirrel specialists throughout history.” And while this bald assertion seems meant to prompt a guffaw, I’d like to think it also alludes to the melancholy (and rather meta) revelation that there are very few outlets today where 2,200 words could be published about the effects of small synanthropes (love this word) on the delivery of basic services. Or really, in an age when this article is barely satire, where journalism about any factors that affect the delivery of basic services could be published.
And while I wish for a natural order of vaguely emo short-form infrastructure writing, that would not guarantee a similarly satisfying blend of introspection, statistics, and cheek that Mooallem has produced here. Still, I am grateful for this alien glitch and the space to reflect on it.