Lunch Break, with Chipmunks

While I was eating lunch yesterday, I noticed one of the chipmunks digging a shallow hole in the grout between two of our patio stones. Or, at least, I thought she was digging…really, she turned out to be uncovering a food cache she must have made some time before.

(A side note about chipmunk holes: what they dig up, they often re-cover…also, they’re aerating for free, so let them do their thing; chipmunk poisoning is terrible karma. *Ahem,* certain neighbors.)

Anyway, I watched the chipmunk unbury pieces of walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, and almonds; stuffing them in her cheek pouches and scurrying away to relocate them to another location. I remember seeing something similar last year, so I wonder if chipmunks engage in a sort of Fall pantry re-organizing?

This continued…

I grabbed my camera and knelt to take photos through the window. I focused on the hole at first, so it took me a few minutes to notice that the chipmunk was coming from two different directions. Because she was actually two chipmunks, not one!

I presume the first one was the original maker of the cache, and the second one- who I caught watching from a distance before darting in, once the first one ran off- was a little thief.

The second chipmunk alternated turns with the first, who it seems didn’t notice she wasn’t the only one re-pantrying…until she made one last trip…and found her cache already empty!

Her reaction? A deep-dive into the small hole, probably checking that everything was, in fact, gone; and then, a righteously indignant question-mark tail!

It was a lovely way to spend a lunch break.

Scenes from a Burrow Building

Our resident mother chipmunk looks like she’s getting ready for a second litter soon. From what we can tell, she’s eating about the same amount, but looking a little rounder, and more significantly, she’s getting her little paws dirty and undertaking a big renovation on her burrow.

She has filled in the previous main entrance (where the first litter of the season emerged from)…

…and made a few new holes further away, but in the same general area (which, luckily, we can see from the kitchen window and so not disturb her as we watch her work).

One of the holes is interesting because it’s between two of our patio paving stones; she dug out a little bit of the grout between them, then the sand underneath, then some rocks, then dirt. The hole isn’t very deep and it turns sharply into a tunnel, so it’s probably an entrance rather than a plunge hole.

It’s one thing to read that chipmunks are amazing diggers, but it’s much more impressive to see them action. This isn’t cavalier digging; it’s a meticulous feat of engineering and strength. She tests potential hole sites before she excavates them; she transports dirt and gravel and rocks offsite via her multi-purpose (Mary Poppins magic bag) cheek pouches; she brings back grass and softer dirt, presumably to line some of the tunnels. And that’s just what we can see above ground!

Our mother chipmunk has also been rolling some rocks back and forth in front of her new burrow entrance. Are they a door? A warning? A decoration? She moves them a few times a day, into different configurations, both from inside the hole and outside. (When she’s inside the hole, the rocks look like they’re moving themselves).

I hope she’s proud of her hard work, but more importantly, I hope her new burrow keeps her (and her forthcoming babies) safe. Another small marvel among us, we’re looking forward to watching over it– what we can see of it– in the weeks to come.

Desire Paths

Reader, here is where I confess that perfectly manicured lawns (and gardens) make me anxious. You will never (ever) find me using pesticide sprays; I will never be accused of over-mowing (on the contrary, sometimes when my husband or son plan to mow the grass, I distract or persuade them out of it).

I love the sight of clover, of grass that’s just tall enough to ripple in the wind like waves (or like fields in Studio Ghibli movies). Even in a tended garden, when I’m outside, I prefer my reminders of humanity to be subtle. And nature, though it has definite elements of symmetry and order, also leans into a fecund sort of untidiness.

And so, the grass over here is often longer (and greener!) than it might be elsewhere in the neighborhood. And recently, I’ve noticed that this has a new practical consequence: in a lawn a bit in need of mowing, the garden wildlife’s desire paths become easier to spot.

I first learned of “desire paths” years ago, when I read Dominique Browning’s book Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener. Also called “desire lines” (or “free-will ways,” or “pirate paths,” or “social trails”), desire paths form out of the erosion of use and convenience, rather than out of design. Mostly, they have to do with the comings and goings of people.

But in the case of the most likely makers of desire paths in our garden (chipmunks and rabbits and squirrels), they lead between food source and cover. Hungry, then satisfied, their lightweight bodies are just heavy enough to part the sea of grass through innumerable round trips of gathering.

I love seeing these little open-air channels through the lawn. And, in trying to create a better environment to track the garden wildlife in, I love having an excuse not to mow too often.

Plus, existentially, these desire paths give me hope that all the little mundane movements all of us creatures make daily leave a mark in some way.

A Little Death

Today I held one of the chipmunks while it took its last breath, cradled in my hands, my fingertip against its slowing heartbeat.

Having so much life in the garden means there’s also at least a little death. Sometimes that looks like a shattered eggshell, or a mess of feathers, or a ransacked burrow…and sometimes that looks like a body. Sometimes, the life is already gone…and sometimes, there are a few minutes left.

I don’t know what animals feel at their hour of death or at any other time (for that matter, I don’t know what my fellow humans feel at any given moment either), but I have felt enough loneliness and fear in my life (haven’t we all?) to know that company and love matter in anyone’s darkest hours. All animals included.

This morning, I held the chipmunk and prayed; at other deaths, I’ve whispered words of comfort to the dying as I wept. I don’t think there is one right way.

Some might say these are just little lives, little deaths, but I believe they are occasions for compassion; occasions to love and to console a fellow living creature however we can; to be a small imperfect peace for another until they rest in Peace.

Amen.

In which one of the new chipmunks chooses a new home…

Now introduced to the world, weaned, and savvy(ish) about some good feeding and hiding spots, the new chipmunks have been choosing their new homes this week. Some may have ventured out of the garden, but it looks like a couple have chosen to make their burrows within its borders.

The easiest of them to spot is the one who chose to make his/her home in one of the vegetable boxes. Specifically, the box where the tomato, pepper, and basil seedlings are (though he/she did check out the box with lettuce, peas, and carrots first).

The boxes are stone, so they hold the heat nicely, and they are full of rich, well-draining, deep soil. They provide some nice lookout corners in various directions. And, best of all, they’re close to food (which we are not opposed to sharing)!

Here are some photos I took of the young chipmunk’s scouting, before his/her burrow building began:

Hello, world!

Last week, six baby chipmunks emerged from the burrow where they had, unbeknownst to us, been born and growing for the previous month. Their mother, chunky and slightly beleaguered-looking, leapt out first and headed straight for the seeds and nuts that were waiting at one of the nearby bird feeders. The babies hung back. A few brave ones peeked out and nosed the air. Presumably, they were pushed out because their siblings piled up behind them, eager for a turn. More tiny ears, and shiny eyes, and black-feathered noses peeked between the blades of grass.

I had been sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window, drinking coffee…but what spell can even caffeine cast upon you when there are adorable creatures about? I forgot my coffee and knelt at the window to watch them more closely and unobtrusively photograph them.

I can’t be certain that it was their first outing, but their expressions seemed to indicate it was. I am someone who believes animals have complex experiences and emotional lives and I read it as: wonder mixed with wariness. The world is BEAUTIFUL! Also, SO SCARY!

I haven’t written formally in years (and I’m rusty), but here I am writing. The nature I experience daily is (just) a suburban woodland-adjacent garden, but there is something wild and worthwhile in it every day, and I want to share it with you.

Wherever you are reading this, I hope you enjoy what’s to come.