I am new to the neighborhood so I suppose I owe some sort of tribute to the locals, like a paying of one’s dues helping side a barn or the baking of a pie in the name of congeniality or treaty. The problem is that there are layers and layers of neighbors here, like a high rise apartment of sort, so where does one draw the line between those neighbors who get a pie and those who just get a friendly wave or in this case who get to raid and pillage my food supply with only the threat of a gruff “get outta here” and those who do the same and feel the final release of potential energy snapping down across their spine in the form of a thirty cent mouse trap? The layers of life around me include fir and cedar, mycelium and clinker fungus, canada jay and ruffed grouse, moose and black bear, mouse and red squirrel. It is the last two that have been keeping me awake at night with the noise of claws and teeth on plastic food wrappers and who have been strewing small amounts of my pantry around the yard.
Maybe I need a cat, an indiscriminate killer of my neighbors to keep my conscious clean as they rid the area of all small mammalian life in a menagerie of blood and fur. Cats are consummate killers, the face of cunning, claw and pounce. I once had the opportunity to see a mountain lion in a cage fitted in a truck bed, face to face, up close, with only a few feet of mountain air and thin steel bars separating us. Sitting there quietly I felt it’s bulk. Yawning and stretching I saw it’s power as it’s shoulder muscles tensed, rippled and relaxed, exposing 4 inch canine teeth and sandpaper tongue and extending the scimitars it had for claws through the snuggly looking fur between it’s toes. I think it is good for us humans to be in the presence of another life form that without really even trying could dissect us like a planarian. While I was sure of that animals physical superiority to me I have suspicions that a fully clawed house cat (or two) could pert near take down an adult human, were it properly motivated. To this day I can still see that cat, the perfect statue of confident lethal poise.
What happens to a human who lives in an environment that is void of predators? Do we feel the need to fill that void with made up fears about other people, other religious groups, or outer space aliens? Fear is a part of our lives and always has been, so perhaps world peace can only be achieved through the reintroduction of our natural predators. I tell you what, we will love thy neighbor if there is a saber tooth tiger chasing us down and that neighbor has a fully loaded 30-06 or a fire hardened spear.
They say that it wasn’t until we humans domesticated cats that we were able to settle down from our nomadic hunter/gatherer lives and become the stationary agriculturalists we are today. Consider that unless you have modern materials like metal to store food and other tempting goods in it is only a mater of hours before rodents and the like start to move in and not only consume but leave excrement and parasites in you grub. My theory is that we know we need cats and cats know it too, hence their air of superiority and aloofness and also our preoccupation with cat fail videos as they show us that our overlords aren’t as superior as they think they are.
I generally like my neighbors. I generally like mice. I generally like my food not to have mouse shit in it. I generally set a mouse trap every night. I think the northern harrier generally likes eating the mice I toss unceremoniously in the field behind my tent. I generally feel ok about this wanton killing.
The red squirrel is different though. While I have raged a jihad against the mice I find the two or three red squirrels around my camp to be scandalous thieves and loudmouths, but endearing in a way that still eludes justification. If I had a cat they would be reduced to fur and that one bloody internal organ cats seem to like bringing back for us to be left on front porches, I think it is a pancreas or a spleen. If I had a cat it would hide under my tent deck and lay in wait for mice to smell my cache of organic lentils and the cast iron skillet full of bacon grease. It would silently move like a furry shadow, pupils like little black holes consuming all that scurries in front of them. Fur would raise slightly. A flick of the tail and in a flash I’d still be sleeping soundly while the carnage of life was all around. A little part of mouse would be left outside my tent and a note written in mouse blood that says “Here’s a reminder you can’t live without us. Sincerely- Cat” I would come up with a witty retort, but it’d come to mind too late, like John Steinbeck said roughly, I have a superior intellect, unfortunately it only works in retrospect.
I came home today to find the red squirrels had upped their assault by not only knocking over most of my bottles of tinctures and such but also absconding with an apple. I found the apple plugged in a hole in the ground in the roots of a great balsam fir where I have seen them popping in and out of; a hole apparently big enough for a red squirrel but not for a fist sized jonagold apple. I was going to reclaim it but I am curious of what their next move is. Will it be eaten in situ or will it be squeezed down the hole under the fir and reemerge 3 years later as an apple tree seedling that will someday most likely produce wholly inedible apples? Will I come back to this spot 50 years from now and be able to sit as an old man on the stump of a gigantic fir tree under the shade of an erratic apple tree in the spring when the blossoms are ripe and pungent? If I do I will be sure to thank the red squirrel for doing his part to make that moment happen. Makes me wonder what I am missing out on by killing the mice.
Just as I finished writing that last line a little squirrel face appeared on my makeshift tent door like Kilroy, perhaps to make sure I get this story right, or to check out the groceries I brought back from the store; sorry little dude no more bacon grease, going back to being a plant eater for a while, how about a nice piece of cauliflower or some organic almonds? She, I assume it is a she as we have an all guys camp this semester and it is comforting to at least pretend there is a female around, didn’t stick around long, just long enough to give me a quick looking over and out the door she went carrying on a legacy of brief encounters with the opposite sex for me this year. But she will be back, she’s a simple heart to win over and I have what she wants, the way to her heart is through her stomach apparently. I throw a few almonds in the yard in front of my tent and close the door, maybe by June she’ll eat out of my hand, maybe she’ll bite and give me a high risk puncture wound but that is the chance we take every time we let someone new into our lives.
Why such an interest in red squirrels? It is easy to overlook the common place, the ordinary in pursuit of the exotic. We learn more about the Amazonian rain forest in public school than we do about the ecosystem surrounding the playground equipment. What are those plants growing between the cracks in the sidewalk? Who left cloven prints on home base? What is the west wind telling us? I too am that way sometimes, knowing more about the plains bison and the west slope cutthroat trout than the red squirrel. Well, all this is gonna change right now.
Ok, this is not that intriguing yet. In Norse mythology Ratatoskr the red squirrel, from a cursory internet search was the town crier and gossip source for all that lived in the World Tree- Yggdrasil, scurrying from branch to branch spreading rumor and implication. While my sources for this cultural study are as suspect as the red squirrels themselves when I come home and find my tent a mess, it makes sense if you have ever heard the way those little buggers let every living being in the woods know when something or someone is coming around. I think of them as an alarm system for me because I know when I hear the chatter box there could be a person, bear, or more likely another red squirrel in the vicinity. So maybe they aren’t the best alarm system, but they work for peanuts.
A pile of conifer cone shells or other seeds/nuts that you find in the woods, oftentimes on a stump or elevated log that was created by feeding squirrels is called a midden, which is good to know if you are in the market for some squirrel meat. What I didn’t know is that each squirrel only has a few midden piles to their name and the female, after raising the pups will sometimes give them a midden pile as territory, known as breeding dispersal or bequeathing, an inheritance of place in the community without the displacement or killing of competitors like I am doing. So…nothing groundbreaking here, but I’ll keep digging.
I have moved into this neighborhood and am making my own ripples of life and death. Under the roots of the fir and cedar trees lives more life than I can kill with all the mousetraps on Earth. In some of those caves runs water cold and pure, keeping little spotted salamanders moist and filling the dreams of brook trout. Other tunnels house lost car keys, pictures of our middle school girlfriends and memories of saber tooth tigers awild in our world where fences and walls are no more formidable than a hedgerow and where little bands of humans sleep close to the fire at night, toes together tying knots of union and safety. We used to live in those tunnels too, painting bison and hunters on the basalt walls of the cave with our hands dipped in red pigment, foretelling of a hunt in the future that will determine our place in the garden. From that garden I took an apple from the tree of life and death, with it I was able to chose that mice will die and red squirrels will live. With it I slept soundly but it was stolen from me and carried down a tunnel under a big fir tree where future generations of red squirrels will gather and paint their own painting on the walls of the cave, telling the story of the human who gave them the knowledge of life and death.