Musings on Squirrels and on the Limits of Science

When ripe acorns start dropping off of the many Oak trees in our neighborhood, the squirrels mostly disappear from our garden for about six weeks. We still see them when we walk the dogs; working during all the daylight hours and into twilight, gathering acorns one by one and carefully burying them in different spots. But they rarely come to the feeders, and we no longer happen on them dozing in the sunbeams filtering through the leaves of the Dawn Redwood in the afternoons.

But once Squirrel Scramble Season (as my one daughter named it years ago) passes, they decisively return to our garden. Not only do they frequent the feeders again, but they venture onto the patio and beyond (one or two even come up and peer into our kitchen windows and make tail signals).

We put a mix of hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts out especially for them; some they bury, some they sit in the garden and eat. Some days, a morning feeding is enough to satisfy them, but if it’s really or suddenly cold, we put smaller amounts out at various times of the day (so their nuts don’t freeze). 

Last winter, we gave the regulars names and kept track of how often they visited. So far this year, our visitors all look like yearlings… but they seem more trusting, faster.  Maybe some of them were the young ones brought by their mother late this spring

Some people think of animals as having to learn every bit of not inherited behavior from scratch every generation, but there’s evidence that some species, like apes and crows, relay information across generations. Let me rephrase that: there’s evidence we humans have detected, collected, quantified. 

I greatly respect science…but the more I live in the world, the less it satisfies. Whether we want to acknowledge them or not, there are definite limits to what we can notice and understand into proving. In the natural world. In everything.

What if we met this shortfall by dwelling in possibility?

…As this relates to squirrels, what if we entertained the idea that squirrels too might have a tradition of passing down stories of friends, enemies, adventures and quests across generations…whether we could prove it or not? Whether we could interpret the stories or not?

What would it change if we spent time not just reading about scientific findings, but also considering the vast and astounding possible?

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.

Graduating Squirrels

It’s graduation season, and over the past few days, we’ve had four young squirrels graduate from their drey to our garden. Their mother (a beautiful, chunky, slightly beleaguered-looking female– as many a good mother is) has been a regular at our feeders for a while and, last week, she introduced her children to our yard.

I haven’t knowingly observed juvenile squirrels before. The first thing that set them apart was that there was a group of them and it was mixed– some males and some females; I’ve seen groups of squirrels (apparently called “scurries”) before, but not mixed. Also, these four were talkative– making lots of chattering, buzzing sounds amongst themselves.

Individually, the young squirrels were bright-eyed and bold, climbing unnecessarily high and practicing branch jumping. Near the feeder though, they were tentative, not quite sure how to stretch so they could reach without slipping. I watched them for hours. Literally, hours (wildlife watching doesn’t seem all that engrossing til you try it).

And I took photos of them, of course. They didn’t mind my being nearby, or my camera; I wonder if their mother taught them I’m a safe human.

It felt like a privilege to get to watch them.

And like perfect timing. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who is graduating (and another dear friend, her mother, who is graduating her). I’ve been trying to think of the right words to gift them, to show them how proud I am to know both of them.

But maybe the best thing I can give them is the testimony that I saw them? That I watched them. In the same awed-quiet, delighted way I watch the squirrel family, glimpsing a bit of their inner workings from the outside.

I saw A be scrappy and vulnerable; incisive and funny; kind-hearted. I saw C be constant and unconditional; patient; inspiring and thoughtful. Though different in temperaments, both of them are remarkable. They are two of my favorite humans and their characters are shaped in relationship to each other.

Maybe witness isn’t much as gifts go, but it’s not nothing, noticing. Attention is affection, after all…and our eyes betray our preoccupations and our hearts.

I gave a commencement speech once before, a long time ago, but every year since, I’ve asked myself, if I could, would I add a coda?

It’s a wondrous and woeful world out there. We are all always new in it, through one phase or another. May we all see and watch out for each other.