27 December 2012

And now, the weather pawcast

A post-Christmas storm closed in on parts of the U.S. this week as meterologists nervously assessed the patterns for various regions of the nation. But their most sophisticated tools, however well-calibrated they may have been, were clearly outpaced by some of the smallest, oldest - and yes, greyest - storm survivors known to the planet.

Forget barometric pressure: Nut-o-metric Pressure is where it's at.

True forecasting at this time of year comes from divining the truths inherent in the obsessive collection of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans. The squirrels' technique is failsafe, even if it does tax a feeder's nut budget. Squirrels have never been famous for doing anything on the cheap.

From at least 8:45 a.m. until well past 2 p.m. this past Wednesday, the outdoor scene, from suburbia to the sticks, was very much a cache-and-carry affair for the squirrels, who carried the keys to the next 24 hours of weather activity carefully between their teeth.

This forecasting system may well date back to the days of Scrat, the prehistoric squirrel whose understated glories came to the forefront in the series of animated "Ice Age" movies. Ah, Hollywood does not do Scrat's talents justice. Talk about a squirrel with overwhelming power and prescience: He not only predicted the Ice Age - his lust for a single acorn caused it!

So if you want to know the possible strength of winds heading your way, talk to the small mother squirrel with the blunted tail and the engagingly dirty nose. The size of her carry-away stash foretells exactly the speeds the region will be buffeted by in just a few hours. Curious about the rawness of the temperatures and the abundance of the downpour yet to come? The chubby, slightly tilted fellow is resolute in creating a nut larder to see him through the ordeal.

Nut-o-Metric Pressure is world-renowned for such precision.

You could, of course, try convincing a squirrel to pose on your living room mantle, replacing that heirloom barometer passed down by great-great-grandpa. But it would be far more practical (and make for a happier squirrel) if you opened the front window or back door and tossed a few well-placed pecans. Interpreting a Nut-o-metric Pressure reading is deceptively intuitive: The greater the demand for nuts, the higher the degree of preparedness is needed for the meteorological mess that lies ahead.

The 17th century English poet Robert Herrick may have exhorted us to "gather ye rosebuds while ye may," but 21st century squirrels make weathercasting, in just this way, its own kind of simple poetry.

19 December 2012

Nutcracker Suite-hearts

Finding holiday inspiration within the hard coldness of Russia's Ural Mountains, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky still should have known about the squirrels: When the 19th century composer set the magical story of an enchanted nutcracker to music in 1892, crafting "The Nutcracker Suite," he really should have done his homework first.

Squirrels, after all, don't just have an ethereal quality but were always the original nutcrackers. And as the Christmas season wraps itself around us, we are again charmed by Tchaikovsky's presentation of young Clara's romantic dream of a nutcracker prince. We watch the couple's affectionate pas de deux play out on stage.

Then, peering outside our own windows to a real-life stage beyond our homes, we see squirrel libidos engaged in a more shameless pas-de-do-it-and-do-it-again-and-again. The elegance and charm of tutus and tights have nothing to do with this rodentian wrestling match. There is nothing sweet about what these nutcrackers are doing.

Tell us, Tchaikovsky, what's a Sugar Plum Fairy to do? We could seek counsel from the squirrel-savvy Mouse King and his loyal army -- the antagonists of the "Nutcracker" tale -- but who wants advice from the bad guys?
Besides, the king gets killed off early in the story. (The classical version of the "Nutcracker" is devoid of sex but not of violence, garnering Tchaikovsky a modern-day "PG-13" rating.)

However, the dance outside our doors is more akin to "50 Shades of Eastern Grey," with a passion that might melt even Tchaikovsky's most brutal Russian mountain snows.

Wildlife rehabilitators need to forget Tchaikovsky altogether. It's time to compose ourselves instead: For the fictional Clara may awaken from her "Nutcracker" dream beneath the Christmas tree embracing her treasured wooden nutcracker toy - and the prince will have vanished back into her dream.

But when wildlife caretakers awaken (even ones named Clara), the prince hasn't gone anywhere - and neither has the princess. They are grey, bushytailed, and their hormones are in full reproductive rage.

In the kingdom of the woods, squirrels are the reigning princes and princesses. And even once Christmas has long passed, the impassioned mating dance of these nutcrackers will go on.

19 November 2012

Nuts to this parade!

Macy's annual Thanksgiving pageantry of floats and fancy footwork is no match for a certain timeless backyard promenade. It's a longstanding tradition of parades that, over the years, never mandated any holiday be declared before the personalities readily queued up, marching with perfect precision: Sumo, Almondo, Mr. Tilty, WhiteSpot, Balducci, Little Notch Ear, Silas Marner, Sunshine, Calypso, The Brothers Grimm, Sylvie and, the very first, Scoiattolo.

Frankly, Spider-Man, Snoopy, Kermit the Frog and Papa Smurf - all of them little more than cartoon balloons - prove to be New York City lightweights in the face of parade professionals such as these.

Linus and Charlie Brown, prepare for the deflating news: Squirrels not only have their feet on the ground, they've got their paws right down in the dirt. They're the only marching band in the procession of time that we really need to mark the passage of another season. After all, if Thanksgiving is a time of bounty, who knows more about harvesting and putting things away for the winter than those who measure their steps outside our windows and doors every day?

Sorry, Macy's. Let retail madness come and go with the shortest days and longest nights of the year. Some of us prefer to take our chances with bushytail madness instead.

09 November 2012

No rationale for rationing

In the spectrum of epic power struggles, Obama vs. Romney wielded all the energy and intensity concomitant with high-voltage politics: Sparks flew, tempers flared and fuses blew.

But in the northeast, people have already unplugged from that temperamental circuit of ego and agenda, focusing instead on a more day-to-day power struggle, one measured in the kilowatt-hours that animate homes and businesses and in miles-per-gallon for vehicles. Or perhaps not being measured: A superstorm and trailing nor'easter left nothing behind for tens of thousands in the region but a cold, dark void.

It is preferable and simpler, on such an occasion, to measure out one's days in squirrels. Living their lives off the grid, their momentum powered only by their own primordial engines, squirrels' comings and goings are a reliable constant in a world suddenly devoid of any human surety but deprivation.

Squirrels are small generators fueled by tree nuts and acorns, simple abundant energy that is "green" - after all, acorns and nuts are the genesis of trees. Gathering nuts requires no drilling, no hydrofracking, no windmills, no mining.

As "odd-even license plate" rationing takes hold for motorists to stem the region's gasoline panic, squirrels brazenly ignore the governmental directive and queue up en masse at the base of trees and at our doors and windows: There is no need for "odd-even" days to fill their larders. In any case, with squirrels being four-legged (most of them, anyway), the "even" days would likely produce pandemonium beneath the maples.

Nut power! It is what allows squirrels' super-fast metabolism to generate STUs (Squirrel Thermal Units) which keeps them warm even in sub-zero temperatures. (Should you ever hear their teeth chattering, be assured it is not because they're cold.)

The fuel giants, the utility companies and even the automotive industry need to hire consultants from Woodland Energy Enterprises and learn to harness the enduring power of nuts that will weather a hurricane, a tornado, even a so-called "superstorm."

Ask for some input from the next squirrel you encounter: Likely he'll gnaw on the matter a bit, but if you're lucky, he'll get back to you, saying, "Let's do lunch."

06 November 2012

Doing Election Day, Squirrel Style

The squirrels are back from the polling place. The lines, of course, were long. But when their turns came, they voted, as usual, without hesitation or ambiguity.

They know what it means to live in a Nutocracy. Whether one is a follower of Walnuts, Pecans or the fiercely independent Hazelnuts, squirrels value the right to elect the nut of their choosing.

Squirrels know that the dynamic of politics is, and always has been, the kind of shell game one can really sink their teeth into. These stalwart little citizens vote with their feet - lacking hands, they really have no choice, anyway.

And now, their Election Day duties done, they are back outside, begging for handouts. This is not Wildlife Welfare, however, nor government entitlement. It is their birthright as American Eastern Grey Squirrels to have free and open access to the fruit of America's trees. They constitute the swing vote, only in that they swing from the trees.

As the sun sets soon on Election Day 2012, and the nation faces change - or perhaps more of the same - I pledge allegiance once again to the squirrels, one of the few constants we can count on in a modern nation growing ever more distressed.

Never mind the blue or the red. I will always follow the grey. Long may their tails wave.

16 October 2012

No great squirrel debate

In the American political landscape, where the present presidential skirmish once again pits the Blue against the Red, squirrels - who dwell happily in the land of the Grey - opt out:

Squirrels do not hold elections. Squirrels do not vote. Squirrels do not engage in politics. Thus squirrels have no need to engage in debate.

The world of the Eastern Grey is very much black and white: If you've got a nut, they'll take it. If you don't, there's no deal.

The squirrels' only campaign is to effectively charm you so you elect to empty your pockets in their presence. These nut offerings aren't political handouts, however. Nor are they campaign contributions. In this world populated by tree-dwelling citizens, acorns, walnuts and pecans are merelyy hard-earned wages from a full day of hard-core squirreling, a day's labor that begins as the sun rises, and doesn't cease 'til it sets.

And while squirrels can dig up dirt better than any political candidate, they're not looking to discredit any opponent. They're simply saving for the hard winter ahead.

Social Security? That's their "nut cache." Free medical care? It's called "wildlife rehabilitation" (and a squirrel is likely to qualify for it only if they're fortunate enough to be saved by a savvy rescuer).

There is a reason the donkey and the elephant were selected, over the squirrel, to symbolize American politics. Call them what you will, but American rivals Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are anything but squirrelly. Let them debate this season on every major network, in every state and on every stage, and let them hash out the national deficit, military conflicts, and the healthcare conundrum.

What it really comes down to is this: Can either candidate crack walnuts with his teeth? Can either build a nest in fewer than 24 hours? And can either man leap effectively from treetop branch to branch with the same energy they use to jump over each other's logic.

The world - and the voters - may be watching, but do the squirrels even care? That's debatable.

28 September 2012

Squirrel is my co-pilot

What's next? Drivers' licenses for squirrels? It's only a matter of time, apparently, even though we already have more than our share of nuts behind the wheel.

Take the recent case of the Clay County, Florida motorist who was pulled over for DUI - driving under the influence. Turns out there was another reason he was driving distracted: He was also Driving Under the Influence of a Squirrel. A small bushytail was busy navigating the roadmap of the driver's chest hairs and had obviously entered a problematic intersection, or perhaps it was a bottleneck, somewhere in the southwest quadrant of the human's abdomen. Without any GPS to help him, the squirrel obviously freaked.

Still, a moving violation is a moving violation. The squirrel did not deserve a ticket but the driver clearly had one coming. Probably two: Owning a so-called "pet" squirrel may not have merited a fine but it's clear the squirrel - as seen in a video shot by the local TV station, WJXT - was quite young. Where was the government-mandated booster seat for infants and children? Had this driver been the parent of a 10-month-old, would he have considered it appropriate to stick the child in his underwear too?

As any Department of Motor Vehicle Commissioner will tell you, there are clearly proper ways to drive with a squirrel in one's vehicle. Pay heed then, to the example set by Pyotr Pankratau, who was a soldier in the Belarussian army when rescued a young Eurasian red squirrel. The creature who has so adapted to his caretaker's civilian lifestyle that he rarely leaves his side, even when Pankratau goes on his rounds as a taxi-driver.

It is noted that, in all photos seen on the Internet of Pankratau and his squirrel, Minsk, the animal is never shoved up his shirt. In fact, he keeps a respectful distance from any kind of underwear while on duty. Yes, in a few photos, Minsk is seen on the vehicle's dashboard - as an auto accoutrement one might liken to fuzzy dice or a living, breathing bobblehead doll - but let the record show that the taxi is always safely parked - and the engine is off - whenever the squirrel is in motion.

And he never gets behind the wheel.

Perhaps the philosophy of Squirrel Chauffeuring is a different matter in Belarus - or anywhere outside the United States, for that matter. But the safety issues are clear:

Before getting behind the wheel, park your squirrel somewhere safely. Drunk or sober, friends don't let friends drive squirrels.

10 September 2012

Down to a science

Pity poor Galileo Galilei. The Italian astronomer-physicist first posited that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

Oh, it's not that this champion of the Scientific Revolution was wrong. But his timing surely was. The 17th century that marked Galileo's lifetime was at least three centuries before the birth of Squirrelfest. If only the wise professor from Pisa had been able to make his way to Longview, Washington this summer - thus crossing an ocean as well as a vast expanse of forward-moving time - he'd have experienced first-hand that many things can indeed occupy the same space at the same time through the magic of devotion to all things squirrel.

In Longview, residents celebrate the city's mascots by taking to the streets in this daylong event, which just marked its second year on Aug. 25. The day is a concurrent celebration of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day and Independence Day.

Only in this Pacific Northwest city can these holidays occupy the same time and space in seeming defiance of scientific theory:

Longview gives thanks for its squirrels and for the safe roadway crossings many have enjoyed since 1963 when one kind resident, Amos Peters, built Longview's first squirrel bridge as a gift that would help ensure their safe street-crossings. The installation of "Nutty Narrows" eventually inspired two other bridges. This year's award-winning span, the city's third, was an aluminum design from a retired attorney who'd died only weeks before the dedication ceremony.

It's a pity Galileo didn't know of Squirrelfest. He would surely have embraced it for its squirrelcentricity. The scientist was among the first, after all, to stand beside Nicolaus Copernicus after the Renaissance astronomer declared his radical theory that - hold onto your acorns, folks! - the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

The sun? That's not necessarily as true in Longview, Washington. There, everything revolves around the squirrels - even the sun of Nicolaus Copernicus. Its own perfect squirrelcentric orbit is made even more perfect by the way its rays wash down brightly, illuminating their path as they cross the newest squirrel bridge in town, then leap gracefully to safety in sunlit woods beyond.

11 August 2012

Final homecoming

We can rescue them from abandonment, cruelty or neglect. We can save them from the devastating impact of a predator's assault, from injury, ailment or even congenital flaw.

Indeed, we can even endeavor to deflect the very damage caused by others of our own species. Tragically, wildlife rescuers undertake this all too often.

Prairie dogs - native North American ground squirrels with a highly social nature - are special creatures of the earth. They thrive in an unseen, underground metropolis that is ever-diminishing throughout the American West. And their rescue historically has not always been a popular prospect there.

In 2003, the symbol of their struggle emerged from a burrow on an East Coast beach. This gentle female was pulled from the unlikely New York setting 9 Augusts ago, almost to the day of this writing. An unexpected media star who illuminated the unrelenting genocide against her species, Fire Island Philomena, as she came to be called, was embraced as well in pet-rescue circles. A transplant to New York via the retail trade, she was an exotic pet who shared the pain of her more conventional brother and sister companion animals: Her entertainment value had clearly run an almost fatal course with the humans who had purchased her. They dumped her on a grassy Atlantic barrier beach just beneath a busy hawk migration flyway.

Her detection and triumphant rescue 18 months later made headlines. And so, for a time, did the politics of wildlife persecution itself. But the rescue ultimately fulfilled its most private mission: Fire Island Philomena spent the next 9 years living back underground, at least in spirit, in a burrow of quiet anonymity with others of her own kind.

She had no issues, no trauma, no complications from her ordeal. She simply went forward into her life. This is, after all, the essence of wildlife rescue: to restore the future that is every animal's birthright.

But even rescue has its endpoint, as do the lives of these squirrels which, on the prairie, rarely extend past 5 or 6 years. There is no dispensation, then, when days become months and months become years. The body becomes weary even if the spirit still soars.

Tonight her spirit soared. There is no rescue from the cycle of life and, perhaps, no need for it after all. This gentle creature, grown too old for the earth that once sustained her, has gone home again.

29 July 2012

Head games

There is pig-headedness. There is strong-headedness. There is hard-headedness.

And now, it seems, there is Squirrel-headedness.

Well, perhaps Squirrel-headedness was there all along: After all, the Rodentian Mindset interprets that anything and everything in the world is a buffet set out for them and them alone. So perhaps that is why the infamous Archie McPhee novelty company - those wonderful folks who previously brought his 'n her Squirrel Underwear and Squirrel Coffee Mugs to market - recently began hawking (ooops, poor choice of words here) this oversized cranial nut carrier intended - as their own website boasts - "to both feed and humiliate squirrels at the same time."

Oh my. So bigger isn't necessarily better? This oversized, toothy likeness is the ultimate weapon of mass humiliation?

Ask any squirrel who's tried to cram 3, 4 or 5 nuts into his or her mouth while soliciting handouts from human slaves, and no doubt they'd disagree with the intention here. Bigger is better, say the squirrels, particularly since squirrels don't wear hats and thus the possession of an oversized head doesn't pose any challenges to millinery shops specializing in squirrel gear. Big-headedness simply connotes more storage space, additional real estate for the nut cache.

"Don't get a big head about this," we caution the squirrels as, day after day, we eject pounds and pounds of the finest pecans and walnuts out our windows in and back doors in their direction, as a means of feeding and placating them. "Don't think this means anything, don't think we love you. We are just amusing ourselves by feeding and humiliating you."

Oh how humiliated they look as they run off, bury the stash and come back for the inevitable second and third helpings. Surely everyone is jeering back in the home nest. (Just not at them.)

If you are reading this, Archie McPhee, I predict the Big Head will be a Big Hit among rodentia, and they'll get the last laugh, flicking their tails, stamping their feet and chattering in amusement as humans hand over their $15 - money that could otherwise be better spent on nuts, as the squirrels themselves will point out. Some consumers will fall for anything, say the squirrels, who are clearly a more discriminating bunch themselves.

Who's humiliating whom?

Archie McPhee should have thought this one through and perhaps quit while he was ahead.

04 July 2012

The land of the free?

In the solitary lifestyle of the eastern gray squirrel, there are no united states. For these proud separatists, independent living defines the American way. And so, flaunting such solitude, these squirrels wave their patriotism with every defiant flick of their lush tails.

Still, more than 230 years after the founding fathers inked this North American nation's Declaration, there do remain Americans who nonetheless thrive in their original colonies: Southern flying squirrels, northern flying squirrels, prairie dogs and all manner of ground squirrels including the Richardson's ground squirrel, the golden mantled ground squirrel and the 13-lined ground squirrel (one stripe perhaps for each of our nation's fledgling states?)

These colonies populate the scattered rock outcrops of the American West, as well as the nation's expansive prairie.

This is America, after all, where colonists and rugged individualists together have made our nation what it is: the land of the free and the home of the wild. They are free to live - but not free to live without threat of extermination. Theirs is a collective cry - not against taxation but annihilation. Solitary or colonial, they are all sought for gassing, poisoning, hunting and trapping.

As our country celebrates the rights its human citizens won not quite three centuries ago, let us not forget the rights of the small and helpless who share our hard-won land.

Freedom is not truly freedom unless such independence belongs to us all.

30 June 2012

Joining the movement

Oh poo.

Yes, let the potty jokes begin.

Much has been written in the last few weeks about the power of flying squirrel poop - not so much as a lethal projectile from overhead, but as a healer of pain and an aid in blood disorders.

That's right: When it comes to medicinal value, squirrel excrement is excellent. These tiny cast-off nuggets are good as gold, even if their color isn't quite the 14-karat variety.

Squirrel feces in medicine is hardly a New Age notion. This concept of incorporating the tiny flyers' output into beneficial remedies, often through tea-like infusions, dates back thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, and it is still being taught at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York. This healing discipline also embraces the output from numerous other terrestrial and arboreal beings (but no doubt the flyers are among the cutest to be pooping for the cause).

Thousands of years of healing power makes for some pretty old poop, for sure. But can America's health care system change to embrace this old-time practice? Will the federal government soon subsidize outhouses for flyers, to facilitate collection of palliative ingredients?

And will these tiny nocturnal rodents soon hang out their shingles, keeping office hours at night, accepting acorns as copayments??

Indeed, our nation's widespread and costly addiction to painkillers could soon be remedied by requiring that all addicts in treatment maintain a colony of flyers who dispense natural analgesics out their back ends. There are, after all, worse things in life than a dependency on squirrels moving their bowels.

Australia, it seems, has already gotten with the program. A June 29 report in The Daily Telegraph heralds the celebrated arrival of such feces in that South Pacific Nation (which has no native flyers of its own). "Quarantine officials have given the green light to therapeutic poo imports, meaning animal dung could be coming to a shop near you," the report announced to its Australian readership.

Open-mindedness to change is a good thing, even if change is something that takes us back thousands of years instead of moving us forward.

And a light-hearted approach to it all can't hurt either. Because laughter is good medicine, too.

So don't be that quick to pooh-pooh. Let's leave that to the flyers.

25 June 2012

One for the books

The squirrels, it seems, do not want us to spend time reading. They'd prefer we invest our hours in pursuits infinitely more sensible and practical.

Feeding them, for instance.

Consider this: Squirrels were never fans of Shakespeare. In his "King Lear," the monarch's mournful cry over a daughter's betrayal - "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child" - clearly underestimates the razor's edge of a squirrel's own incisors.

Today's squirrels have even less tolerance for the written word, even the naughty newbie, "50 Shades of Grey." Its title notwithstanding, its nakedly blatant adventures have nothing to do with the varied spectrum of squirrels' coats. It's about sex - lots and lots of sex - and squirrels don't seem to get any of that action either.

So it came perhaps as no surprise that in one New York county this past weekend, the book-loathing squirrels finally turned to desperate crime.

This wild squirrel antipathy against literacy spurred one singular, widepsread act of destruction: In suburban Suffolk County, a squirrel succeeded in shutting down the library system - or at least, for a few hours, cutting off its main computerized operations by employing a tooth that was likely sharper than a Shakespearean serpent's.

Hard-working librarians no longer had access to their vital databases, rendering them all but useless at assisting patrons.

Victory, for a time, belonged to that group of small mammals relegated to section "599" in the Dewey Decimal System. The category 599, the mammals, seemed suddenly to rise to the ranks of a global superpower.

The squirrels, no doubt, chattered happily knowing that their covert operation meant that even Beatrix Potter's "Squirrel Nutkin," a fictitious creature requiring no real-life handouts, would find frustration in any efforts to leave the shelves. Smugly, Suffolk's squirrels sat back and waited for the hoped-for massive run on grocery stores where readers, left with nothing to read, would become feeders. They would rush to the market, buy up huge quantities of walnuts and pecans, then head for tree-lined parks, bags in hand.

But even power outages don't last forever. In the end, it was much ado about nothing of permanence. As the juice came back on, squirrels' collective hopes dimmed. Their puckish antics were, as Shakespeare himself might say, merely a "Midsummer Night's Dream."

24 June 2012

Going free

His life began, as it does for all squirrels, in darkness. But when the critical 4-week period of his development arrived, bringing the promise of that welcome fifth sense, there was no sunlight to greet him: He'd been born without the eyes that would have let the world in.

The squirrel's rescue was the stuff of myths. We found this small creature ourselves, a gray body rolling about in the midst of traffic on a busy road one early evening in 2002. When we scooped him up, dodging traffic all the while, we discovered he was mysteriously unscathed. His skin betrayed not a single scratch, he harbored not a single flea. He appeared a picture-perfect juvenile of about 15 or 16 weeks, well past the weaning stage. He was, quite possibly, a squirrel of newfound independence from the birth nest.

Except for those eyes. The eyes that weren't.

How a squirrel denied vision could have made it this far - then made it to the center of a well-trafficked thoroughfare - will forever remain a mystery to us. Perhaps even to this squirrel, who was given the name Stevie Wonder. He was, in every way, a wonder - and more.

Our job, as rehabilitators, is not to keep, to collect nor to cage what is rightfully nature's. Our job is to give back, to restore, to make whole again. With Stevie Wonder, this was not possible. A veterinarian's exam confirmed that his eyes had never - and would never - develop. And so this gentle being learned to navigate a vastly narrower world, find joy in food, toys and such simple creature comforts as a hammock.

Ten years passed. A decade borrowed from beneath the crushing wheels of a car can be a gift. And so it was.

We can be certain of two truths central to the work of wildlife rehabilitation: The animals you raise are going to die. They will either die in your care or, someday, out there in the trees, well beyond your care and beyond your own field of vision. Perhaps these are things we are not meant to see.

But still, there are some things we hope to gaze upon: A few days ago, a young male and female squirrel left our care, ecstatically free as they ran out into the sunlit woods, released into the lifetime of wholeness they were born to seek.

That same week, Stevie Wonder took his leave of us. This, however, was a goodbye we had neither planned nor expected. An elderly squirrel, he slipped from the confinement of his sightless body and found his way to his own moment of release.

His life ended as it had begun - in darkness. Shortly before midnight he returned to nature, and the world he never saw made him whole again.

16 June 2012

High and mighty

Rest assured, the squirrels are not impressed with Nik Wallenda. The seventh-generation member of his family's world-famous daredevil act, Wallenda enjoyed a different kind of Niagara Falls honeymoon this week. He went head over heels - all the while keeping his balance - as he walked an 1,800-foot-long tightrope suspended 200 feet over the pounding falls.

"So what?" says our nation's collective chorus of eastern grays, reds, fox squirrels and flying squirrels. "Can he leap from branch to branch at the very tops of hundred-year-old trees? Does this Wallenda guy regularly cross busy highways balanced on a power line - one that is surging, we might add, with dangerous electric juice?

"And what," the squirrels continue, "is the deal with that safety harness?" Indeed, Wallenda's high-altitude, waterscaped border crossing between New York and Canada had the wearable insurance policy of the harness, a presumed requirement of ABC, the TV network that broadcast the nighttime stunt. Understandably, ABC was looking to keep Wallenda as live as the telecast.

Arboreal squirrels of all varieties who are lucky enough to retain their tails for the entirety of their lives are, likewise, equipped by nature with such a harness, albeit a lesser one. But there are no network camera crews lighting their passage across dangerous turf, whether it is wooded, watery or paved - and there are no crowds of well-wishing spectators cheering them on, from either sides of their journey. They are not even guaranteed a particularly grand welcome on the other side, assuming they've achieved safe passage. Predators could be waiting - instead of vendors selling souvenir T-shirts embossed with: "I saw a gray squirrel cross Route 17 and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

For squirrels who traverse the world at high altitudes, such highwire acts are not stunts but survival. So who's the real daredevil here?

31 May 2012

More than academic

Pomp? There was none. And the circumstance was ordinary too: Three squirrels in the woods.

But it was commencement day for these three - valedictorians all – and their winterlong studies, as Squirrelology majors, paid off handsomely. Today they were carried into the woods and they stepped out as freshly minted grads.

With the carrier hatch open, they emerged knowing what to do: With no podium in sight, they ascended instead to the trees. With no diplomas to retrieve, they foraged for leaves. No cap, no gown. Just a bushytail to turn, instead of a tassel.

Speeches? None that were discernible by human ears.

Honorary degrees? Unnecessary. These scholars had earned every academic grade point.

Make no mistake about it: Nature U presents a daunting curriculum. Mixed in with the ivy of its league are the ferns, the maples, the sycamores and the oaks. To be well-treed here is to be well-schooled.

Congratulations Class of 2012 as you bed down tonight. Each one of you is at the head of your class.

May you soar next to the level of your masters.

03 May 2012

A heart could be no braver

He is unspeakably fragile and small - not even 200 grams as of this writing - and his story could well be the stuff of legends, if only squirrels chronicled such things.

But he is too busy living his own remarkable survival to stop and record it.

He is, in the words of his rehabber caretaker, the "pygmy warrior," so christened upon his arrival in her care last month. He came nearly devoid of fur, pigmentation and general good health.

Heart was all that stood in his favor. It beat strong and sure in a body depleted and underdeveloped, the result of one man's determined but dangerously inappropriate attempt at hand-rearing.

He was one of two brother squirrels who never should have been in that misguided care in the first place. And, as such, the littermates soon required rescuing for the second time in their painfully short, unfortunate lives.

And now the pygmy warrior has emerged, under his wildlife caretaker's watch, as Braveheart, a little nobleman in his own right in the squirrel kingdom. Beside him is his brother Spartacus, no less a warrior, though this brother seems to have suffered less from those previous acts of human ignorance.

Both have since dropped their battle garb and are getting down to the business of being baby squirrels again. Instead of fighting for life, they can wrestle for fun. They are growing and gaining - and Braveheart is catching up, in weight and growth, to be what a young squirrel should be. His caretaker reports that his fur is, at long last, starting to emerge, along with a spunky personality.

History books may never record the quiet battles these small combatants wage every season, when fate, ignorance and the elements conspire to challenge their rightful place beside us on earth. Hollywood may never adapt their dramas to the big screen. And schools may never offer a curriculum in the fine and delicate art of wildlife survival.

But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little Bravehearts out there in the wild. And if you listen carefully to the sound in the trees, moments after a young squirrel is released back into the wild, you might just catch the unmistakable cadence that is the heartbeat of a pygmy warrior.

26 April 2012

Lights! Action! ... Squirrel???

He is our nation's Next Big Action Hero.

Picture Clint Eastwood with ear tufts and dagger-like incisors.

Envision Bruce Willis with a bushy tail (or with any hair, for that matter).

Or how about Arnold Schwarzenegger, minus the sex scandals.

Meet RoboSquirrel, fearless defender of the free world - his free world, that is, which likely consists of his family and their well-hoarded, well-guarded stash of eats.

Scientists have long been mesmerized by western squirrels' talents at standing up successfully in the face of fear, when fear is named "rattlesnake" and wields a venomous bite. In such encounters, however, adult squirrels, it seems, just don't get rattled.

In an attempt to decode their successful military strategy, researchers at UC Davis built a robotic squirrel - think "Squirrminator" - pre-programmed his tail to take remote commands, replicating the real thing's responses witnessed in nature. Then they released him into the wild (as all good squirrels must someday be, even robotic ones.)

Unlike the real thing, these robosquirrels could now do two important things on demand: wave their semaphore-like tails in a pre-arranged pattern responding to danger, and raise those same tails' temperature, as needed, to put some extra heat on any standoff with a snake.

Researchers have come to believe that the heat does the trick more than anything else, leaving the snake to slither away with his tail tucked between....well, whatever snakes have.

Squirrels can already leap tall buildings in a single bound - or at least a tree of that architecture's equivalent size - so getting a scaly ground-dweller to back off in the dirt seems, by comparison, a walk in the park, or perhaps a slink in the woods.

Still, scientists are impressed. They say this infrared communication is far more subtle and sophisticated than anyone could have imagined. Yes, it's the same kind of infrared we sometimes use for connectivity between our printers, our hand-held computers and our other geek toys. But let us state, for the record, the squirrels had it first. Not Apple. Not Microsoft. Not Hewlett-Packard. No doubt the squirrels are already gnashing their incisors, working on the next major version of Bluetooth.

Worry not, their hard work on this development will not be compromised by any security leaks to the media. Not even the scientists at UC Davis are getting a peek at this. RoboSquirrel is standing guard, keeping these secrets safe from any corporate vipers and others who might rattle and tattle.

20 April 2012

There will be no R.S.V.P.

An open letter to the squirrels I am about to release this season:

Most of all, be safe.
Millions of years of evolution have prepared you for what you face now: the hawk or owl above, the fox below. The hurricanes that lie in wait. The droughts.

The exquisite balance in your bones will keep you poised, as it did your ancestors, with each leap you take to the tiniest wisp of a branch, and you will do it at unthinkable heights.

You are ready. This moment has been in the making since time and squirrels began. As for me, I have had only weeks, maybe months with you. When it comes to such partings, then, I am not quite so evolved. Forgive me.

Oh, it's not that you break my heart as you soar free today. My heart would have been shattered had you not made it to this point. But I will miss you.
So, be safe. And if you encounter others from seasons past out there in the trees, you may not know it. But the footprints you see before you are theirs. Yes, this has happened before. It's just that names and stories no longer matter out here. Under this canopy, the orphaned infant, the brother and sister hammered by the storm, and the adult savaged by the cat are all the same.
All free.
Be as grateful for this moment as I myself had been, barely months earlier, for that moment you were carried through our door and into our care.
Be glad too you are going now.
But most of all, be safe.

17 April 2012

Ring bling

Question: What is precious, multi-faceted, priceless and the shining centerpiece of the 2011 World Series championship rings given recently to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team?

Wrong answer: 103 diamonds and 50 rubies, at a total weight of 2.62 carats in gemstones.

Correct answer: A tiny but very distinctive image of the team's Rally Squirrel. That's the real gem of the 14-karat white gold package. That's the squirrel credited with giving the players' season a world championship performance in Busch Stadium, by virtue of making an appearance twice.

Since his lucky run on the field last season - followed by the team's own good fortunes - the squirrel has also appeared (in a decidedly more planned fashion) on bobblehead dolls, as a plush toy, and as an image on T-shirts and baseball cards, for starters.

The Jostens ring shows the Rally Squirrel airborne across home plate, right below the team's ruby-encrusted logo. But he is not stealing home: He has more than earned his right to own home plate.

His legs are outstretched as he runs, full speed, into history. And that's good as gold. Perhaps better.

13 April 2012

Justice for Luca

His only crime was that he was born a baby squirrel. Being wild, helpless, orphaned and alone were reasons enough for him to be cruelly targeted.

In the eyes of those who would willfully hurt animals and need any justification at all, another's innocence and defenselessness will often suffice. The little squirrel possessed both traits and, because of that, was doomed at his assailants' hands and at the mercy of their feet.

Judged guilty of his crime, the squirrel was sentenced: And so it began, the prodding, the badgering, the kicking. These predators, overwhelmingly larger than the few ounces they sought to destroy, were little more than youngsters themselves: Human children engaged in an act, not borne of indifference but deliberate cruelty.

But he is alive today. One person stood between this baby and certain slow death. An observant rescuer stopped to save him - one small squirrel in a vast, busy city - and his rescuer found someone who could harbor him and heal him.

And now Luca - so named by the New York City wildlife rehabilitator who took him in and is helping his battered body recover - is safe.

It is a privilege to read the story of his rescue and recovery since then, as told through social media such as Facebook. One look into his bright eyes, as seen in the earliest photos his loving caretaker has shared, says he is not ready to give up on the world, even though he fell into it long before he was equipped to meet its challenges. One look into his bright eyes says he is ready to meet those challenges now because he is not doing it alone. He has someone in his corner and he can get down to the business of being a baby squirrel again.

His body is healing but his spirit - you can see it in his eyes - never once suffered from those deadly blows.

If wanting to be alive, even in a cruel world, is indeed a crime, then perhaps Luca is guilty of something after all. But then so are we, the ones who lift up their bruised bodies, cradle them gently in our palms, then help them get on with their lives.

08 April 2012

The Squirrel Games?

Everyone is a killer - or possesses that lethal potential - in "Catching Fire," the second book in Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy.

Yes, even the squirrels. As the narrative recounts one such historic fight-to-the-death competition among young citizens of this post-apocalyptic nation, even the squirrels enter the mix, and they are ascribed with such terrifying attributes as being "fluffy," "golden" and "flesh-eating."

Of course: These are a natural combination. Especially if you happen to be a filbert.

In the first, eponymous book, squirrels are relegated to a more traditional and, alas, more unfortunate role: they are the game (with a lower-case "g") - the hunted, the victims - perhaps not so dissimilar from the young and tragic Hunger Games warriors themselves who populate the novel. In a sorry land of want and deprivation, they are all on the receiving end of so much unpleasant weaponry.

The squirrels' transformation into carnivorous bushytails, however, is quite a feat to pull off, even in the sequel's fictional account. Is this an invention of genetic engineering or perhaps just the byproduct of a tortured, sleepless night endured by the author herself after too much late-night, poorly digested trail mix?

Squirrels, as we all know, do have the potential to be fully equipped tools of mass destruction. Don't let the cute faces fool you. That bushy tail can cloak any number of deadly weapons, from woodland IEDs to granola grenades. And let's not get started on those pearly whites, particularly the front incisors which, as "open-rooted" teeth, grow ad infinitum, always renewing their sharpness, ready for action. These are teeth that can grow into infinity, if need be. They are a dentist's fantasy, a warrior's fancy, and one fiction writer's flight into Hell itself, apparently.

All of this literary defamation, if not humiliation, occurs at the start of a most auspicious annual rite, the launch of Squirrel Week by The Washington Post. Clearly, not all writers - and certainly not columnist John Kelly - view Sciuridae as natural-born killers.

The Squirrel Anti-Defamation League can rest easy where the Post is concerned. But let's hope they're keeping a mindful eye on Suzanne Collins, who perhaps needs a form of therapy no stronger than to sit down with several hours of the classic "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Or let Collins spend a few hours in New York's Central Park - or Washington D.C.'s Mall - feeding nut meats to roving bands of toothy marauders.

However we choose to play it, let the Games begin.

03 April 2012

Wisdom of the ancients

Who can resist a 30,000-year-old squirrel?

For one thing, you won't find many 30,000-year-olds at your back door begging for nuts. But even if you did, would you deny him (or her) the luxury of a pecan? Many of us have been raised to venerate the old and presumably wise. So if we could, we would honor this rodent who has been transformed by the passage of time into a treasured rarity. We would readily open our hearts, our back doors and our nut stashes: After all, any squirrel who has been begging for handouts successfully for several millenia is surely, by now, a seasoned and polished pro at the game.

But there are other reasons to celebrate Grandpa, who in this case, was most likely a ground squirrel. This elder statesman is not the same creature as Scrat, Hollywood's "Ice Age" film protagonist who is, by all accounts, a thief of hearts as well as hazelnuts. Grandpa is no player in an animated cartoon - he is instead the centerpiece of an article in a scholarly journal, Nature, which broke big news in the squirrel world with the recent headline: "Wild flower blooms again after 30,000 years on ice: Fruits hoarded by ancient ground squirrels give new life to prehistoric plants."

OK so the headline isn't exactly tabloid fodder. There's no bitter divorce with allegations of nut-cache thievery or squabbling over who gets custody of the walnuts. There's no ugly, name-calling chatter that ends up on reality shows or the evening news.

This is, however, a story about a rare gift - legacy from long ago that we modern humans can enjoy, thanks to squirrels. A plant that thrived on the mammoth steppe of Siberia has supposedly been brought back from the dead, or at least from a very long sleep deep in the permafrost, by scientists who unearthed seeds and fruits that had been buried there about 30,000 years ago by ground squirrels. With great care, the scientists harvested placental tissue from these plants and gently cultivated it in a laboratory setting until shoots came into being.

An earlier attempt to grow the actual seeds themselves failed when the seeds died shortly after germination. The laboratory plants, however, did grow and mature from the placental tissue and eventually produced fertile seeds - and a second generation of plants.

Why should we even care? Because this long-ago link to our planet's Ice Age roots begins in these seeds. It's a gift from these small rodents who populated our planet hundreds of thousands of years ago, doing just what squirrels do now - they gathered and buried their food. Squirrels have given us yet another link to our planet's beginnings.

You may not be able to personally thank a 30,000-year-old squirrel for this thriving collective of laboratory plants that holds secrets to our origins. But you can be a little nicer when there's a scratch at your back door - and a hungry-looking pair of eyes meets your gaze.

23 March 2012

For leadership, look to Washington, D.C.

People who seek a guiding spirit for our nation, someone to lead us past petty troubles toward a higher, greater good, often come away disappointed as they stand, if only figuratively, in the shadow of the Capitol or the White House.

But yes, the spirit of leadership does thrive after all in Washington, D.C. Any doubters need only turn to the Washington Post website, to a recent article by columnist John Kelly, which speaks of cherry blossoms and their eternal hold on a now-retired botanist.

We are not talking here about cherry blossoms or botany, however. We are drawn to the very bottom of Kelly's column, where he reveals himself a true commander in this capital city. He writes: "My second annual Squirrel Week kicks off April 8. Send squirrel-related questions to kellyj@washpost.com. Put “Squirrel Query” in the subject line."

Wildlife rehabilitators are known to readily initiate such now-entrenched celebrations as Squirrel Appreciation Day, in the autumn, and Squirrel Appreciation Week, in January - and older tradition has, of course, brought us Groundhog Day in February. But it takes initiative, guts and pluck for a "wildlife civilian" such as Kelly to put himself out there on the maple limb with the bushytails and proclaim a designated Squirrel Week - the second annual one, no less - in a high-profile metropolis that has been known, throughout our nation's evolution, for far more global, history-making events.

This, I maintain, is leadership. The Washington Post already raised the curtain on this special week back in January with its online gallery of readers' squirrel photos. Kelly, who is clearly a fan of squirrels, also clearly works in a Scuridae-friendly environment - something I hope the nearby U.S. Department of Labor will take note of when handing out workplace merit badges.

Ah, but why is this leadership?

Because it takes courage, commitment and honesty to advocate for the little guy. To advocate for the helpless. To share the stories and photos of the oft-disenfranchised. We often hear these very pleas delivered in testimony on Capitol Hill, a nut's-throw (or two) from the Washington Post newsroom. Squirrels are simply a smaller, unseen nation of 99 percenters.

Thanks to journalists who are not afraid to take the lead, people such as Kelly - and the Washington Post, which supports his efforts - this small nation stands much less of a chance of being forgotten.

13 March 2012

Cast in a new role

Her name is Violet, and she is not much bigger than the soft, violet-colored cast crafted of vet wrap that presently protects her injured front leg.

Violet made news just a few days ago when she tumbled out of the nest in a tree, as it was being cut down, landing her, front and center, on the Huffington Post website as a squirrel in distress. MSNBC, The Daily Mail and a few other news services also picked up the story and ran with it.

And there, through it all, was this photo of Violet, cradled gently in the palm of some anonymous, off-camera caretaker at the Wildlife Aid Foundation in Surrey, England. It was her shining moment of glory, her celebration of a life saved - a not insignificant act, considering this occurred in Britain, where eastern gray squirrels are viewed as non-native, invasive, unwanted pests and are often the focus of sanctioned killing sprees.

Violet is clearly an eastern gray squirrel. A not-quite-3-week-old, eyes-closed, injured, orphaned and very important eastern gray squirrel. And she is very much wanted. The rescuers have committed to caring for her and her brother, who was given the name Fred, until their release back into the wild in a few months when they are healthy and grown.

So her little purple cast has become more than a vehicle for her recovery. It is a symbol of the love and responsibility people can still have for the tiny, the helpless and the disenfranchised among us.

There is no doubt that before she and Fred are released, this tiny squirrel will stir more than her weight in compassion and awareness that even in a hostile world there can be hope.

08 March 2012

Plumb out of answers

One South Carolina town has been so flush with squirrels this year that even its toilets have been flush with squirrels.

In fact, Channel 10, WIS-TV, broadcast a report about one local homeowner, Rose Strohman-Morris, of the town of North, who discovered one such bushytail getting down and dirty hanging out in her plumbing just this week.

Oddly enough, according to the report, she is not the only resident who has reported rodents in their restroom. The town's mayor, Earl Jeffcoat, is quoted by the TV station as calling this mini-invasion "a nuisance."

The locals attribute it to the overpopulation of squirrels. But that seems, to say the least, an oversimplification. And there have been reports of this happening before, in other locales: In March 2011, in Malawi. In Oklahoma, in 2010. And in 2008, in Canada, when it was a flying squirrel that landed down under the lid.

Squirrels are tree dwellers, not potty animals. It's unlikely they actively seek out homeowners' bidets and bowls in the hopes of scoring a big nut cache.

And a toilet is hardly an ideal receptacle for anything you wish to store for the long haul.

Clearly, the squirrels are there as uninvited guests: Those with standing offers to come to dinner or perhaps Sunday brunch are more likely to make their entrance through the front or side door, wiping their paws delicately first on the welcome mat.

A toilet is the last place you'd drop into as a guest of honor.

How the squirrels ended up in some folks' pipes and bowls is anyone's guess at this point but it's clear if the squirrels had any choice in the matter, they'd hightail (or bushytail) it out of there, especially if they knew what they were getting into, in the first place.

Fortunately, making use of an improvised catchpole of sorts, Strohman-Morris was able to clear the living clog safely from her bowl, taking him outside, thus saving a life and leaving the toilet free for its somewhat earthier mission.

You can bet the squirrel wasn't the only one who immediately felt relief.

20 February 2012

Squirrels take the cake!

Sure, there's inarguably something sweet about squirrels. But I never expected it might be the frosting that surrounds their tiny paws.

And still, there you see them - squirrels, that is - adorning cupcakes, layer cakes and the occasional torte. Paws down, they're the cutest things to come along since someone thought a bride-and-groom topper might be an appropriate inclusion for the dessert portion of a wedding reception. (The two examples seen here were provided to me via Facebook postings, and I am fairly certain there are at least a baker's dozen more out there.)

How did this happen? Squirrels, with their paintbrush tails and noble posture, squirrels, with their pledge-of-allegiance pose and folded paws, squirrels, with their wide, wild glassy eyes, have always had their images co-opted for home decor. You see them as lamp finials, fencepost toppers, doorbell icons and even weathervanes. You see their images on switchplates, welcome mats and even throw-rugs.

And now, squirrels have begun showing up in the bakeries of the world - and not just because someone left the front door open and got careless with a bag of hazelnut flour. Squirrel cookie-cutters are nothing new, of course. But now the market is starting to display squirrel cake- and cupcake-toppers, all imaginative things that set the stage, and the theme, for an entire feast based on their woodland antics.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's a happy revelation whenever squirrels can be accepted as consumer decor, instead of a consumer delicacy (as is advocated in hotspots such as the United Kingdom right now).

But let good manners prevail, nonetheless. Enjoy a slice of squirrel-adorned layer cake but eat it now. Don't squirrel it away for another moment. German chocolate cake or hazelnut torte was not meant to be buried.

Like the squirrel, live in the moment, especially when it comes to desserts. Let good manners and good taste be the icing on the cake.

09 February 2012

Let's put the squirrels in charge

The news alert from CNNMoney.com logged in with an almost celebratory swiftness: The headline, "Mortgage deal could bring billions in relief," heralded word of a $26-billion foreclosure settlement - which could climb as high as $34 billion when all is said and done - to provide struggling homeowners relief in their indebtedness to some of the nation's largest lenders.

What followed next, on the computer screen, was a very different kind of headline: "Nuts! Diamond Foods boots CEO, stock plunges." Bad accounting practices, it seems, have plagued this giant purveyor of tree nuts, and Diamond's most recent woes derive from its entangled payments to the nation's nut farmers.

Bad deals. Higher (or lower) expectations than reasonable. Ill will bordering on corruption, perhaps. Lack of transparency and honesty. These are the plagues eating away at any number of American businesses and passed along to sour the nation's economy.

What to do? Let's really get down to business, America: Let's put the squirrels in charge.

Consider their track record: How many forests are presently in foreclosure? For that matter, how many saplings are being offered on a short sale? How many maples and oaks have been taken over by branches of JPMorgan Chase or Bank of America?

No, trees are squirrels' homes, fair and square, and when they go out on a limb, it isn't to put their investments at risk. Quite the contrary, squirrels go out on a limb to warn other squirrels of the predatory practices of some of the major locals: owls, hawks, feral cats and raccoons. (Mind you, none of these predators happen to be lenders, either. When they play, they play for keeps.)

Put the squirrels in charge and if you're a homeowner drawing too close to a bad deal, you'll hear the alarm call high up in the trees and your solvency will be preserved.

As for Diamond nuts, their salvation would be in replacing that tossed CEO with a squirrel. Conflict of interest? Hardly. Who values these precious commodities more than squirrels? The tough nut of business dealings is nothing compared to the hard shell protecting walnut meat. Anyone who can crack that can easily take apart a bad strategy and save a company's reputation.

With squirrels in charge, companies such as Diamond, or even the Big Three auto makers, need never worry either about dire straits precipitating a government bailout. Oh, squirrels are familiar enough with handouts - visit Central Park in Manhattan or the Mall in Washington, D.C. and you'll see real pros shaking down the public. But this is the art of the deal, of shrewd negotiation, not begging from a position of weakness.

Put the squirrels in charge and you'll see companies with renewed optimism and leaner operating costs. The board of directors would become just one more board to gnaw on. Successful, whittled-down companies, would be able to bury their competition in record time. "Being in the Black" would become a meaningless, outdated description for a ledger, supplanted by the more meaningful "Being in the Grey."

After all this national recovery, the possibilities for growth would then be limitless.

And in this Presidential Election Year, it only stands to reason that squirrels, swift and skilled jumpers that they are, may want to take one more logical, well-placed final leap. Flicking their tails as they whiz past the celebrated White House squirrels on the lawn on Pennsylvania Avenue, they'd be ready to sink their teeth into the next business, running the Oval Office.

01 February 2012

Punxsutawney Bueller's Day Off

Just supppose, in the predawn hours of Feb. 2, the Big Red Phone rings at Weathercaster Central Headquarters in Pennsylvania, and it's the long-suffering groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, telling the boss he won't be in to work?

Or, in Phil's case, he won't be out to work?

Would he stay underground or emerge secretly for a Hollywood-style day of wildness, finally answering the age-old question of how much wood he might truly chuck if his cheerful, cheeky chucking went unchecked?

OK, maybe Phil wouldn't pull a Matthew Broderick-style movie sickout, but face it, if the groundhog ever became a no-show, burrowing down deep beneath the shadows, it would leave the rest of the weather-conscious world in something of a hole too.

Ah, but we do have options. Taking our cue from the current election season here in the U.S., we can hold primaries and elect a stand-in among his various cousins. The prairie dog, after all, has already been given prognosticator status in the American West, where there are no woodchucks to do the dirty work. Further north, some folks look to the mighty marmot.

Then there are the flying squirrels. As nocturnal beings, they would have no shadow-seeking to challange them but perhaps, as these light-footed beings take skyward, we could look for spring in their step instead.

Best of all, there would be no partisan politics to contend with. No mud-slinging - except, as expected, by the beavers.

The Order Rodentia is, thankfully, a nation governed by one party. At least in the political sense.

With regard to other sorts of parties, well, the one-workday-a-year-off for the slacker known as Punxsutawney Bueller could lend new meaning being a party animal altogether: beer can in one paw, TV remote in the other, he'd get his underground stereo blasting.

No doubt he'd boogie to the beat, even after the sun set on the music, chucking as much wood as a woodchuck could, to the song of the day: The BeeGee's "Shadow Dancing."

30 January 2012

This chuck's not chuckling

2012 may well be the year that stumps even Punxsutawney Phil, the legendary prognosticating rodent. His cousins - Malverne Mel, Holtsville Hal and even his Canadian counterpart, Wiarton Willie - are likely dumbfounded too.

Even while many of us living in northern climates bask in a sun that somehow seems too strong for this post-solstice season, the question on everyone's not-so-frozen lips is somewhat different this year: How many weeks left until winter?

We are, it seems, shadow-boxing with this page of the calendar. And for even the most hibernation-prone among us, the issue has become something to lose sleep over: Where is winter? We are, it seems, being taken by storm in an unexpected way: A blitz of sunshine. And these oddly warmer days have begun to, well, snowball: Day after day of bright sun. A dusting of white to tease us. Even the chipmunks, yawning off their lighter cloak of sleep, seem confused.

Winter itself appears to have gone underground, reveling in the great torpor that was once the province of Phil and his ilk instead. So has the groundhog been deprived of the Arms of Morpheus? Will he ever again manage to achieve the R.E.M. stage of sleep, that deepest level which unwraps the gifts of all our wildest dreams, burrowed beneath consciousness?

To sleep, perchance to dream, dear Phil. Skip the holiday if you must, and snore your happy snore past Feb. 2 and beyond.
It's OK. As long as you close your eyes and dream of winter.
Make it happen. Chuck this weather.
Spring will come soon enough.

20 January 2012

'Tis the season to be ... appreciative

And so, among the squirrel-loving community, the December festivities are behind us and our own holiday season has finally arrived. It is a week or so of glory unto the highest - in this case, the highest branch:

Saturday, Jan. 21, Squirrel Appreciation Day, through Thursday, Feb. 2, Groundhog Day marks a time for rituals of deep winter napping, acorn-gathering, ceaseless chattering and, more often than not, going out on a limb. For the squirrels, at least, if not for us.

Even for the most orthodox and observant arboreal citizens who partake in this season, these rituals offer no opportunity for introspection or reflection: Rodents aren't known for their talents at self-assessment. When you're at the bottom of the food chain, it hardly seems an asset.

Neither is this a time for them to exchange gifts or indulge in acts of charitable giving: In their cache-as-cache-can world, squirrels have a notorious aversion to poverty, particularly their own. They covet one another's nuts. (Holiday season or not, when was the last time you saw a soup kitchen in an oak tree?)

And frankly, this is not even a season sweetened by melodies and caroling. Squirrels burst the winter silence with their pointed cacophany, their ill-mannered, loud and often dissonant chatter.

Squirrel Appreciation Day? It's all the same to them.

Ah but how do we humans - more inclined toward gratitude and related emotions - mark the season? We do our observing by serving. We deck the halls (and every place else) with bags of nuts. Cobs of corn. Chunks of bread.

And we dress in the festive colors of the holidays. Basic gray or perhaps even red for certain parts of the country. Or for those in the luckier regions to have even more variants of the species, a rare white or completely black outfit.

Somewhere after the reindeer of Christmas have departed and the bunny of Easter has yet to arrive, we encounter the simple squirrel of Appreciation Day.

This tiny bushy-tailed ornament makes every tree a holiday tree.

It takes so little to appreciate them.
Speak softly and carry a big nut.

And go forth, appreciatively.

04 January 2012

Portrait of the artist as a Young Squirrel

Add this to the list of notable movements in fine art: Cubism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Surrealism and now, Nuttism.

Nuttism comes to us courtesy of Winkelhimer Smith, a rescued eastern grey who believes that wielding a squirrel-hair paintbrush is hardly an artist's sure-fire route to the School of the Masters.

Rather, you need to engage the whole squirrel.

As we see in this video, Winkelhimer has matters clearly in paw.

Given the artist's diminutive size, one could argue the style more closely mimics Minimalism. And given the artist's unlikely talent, one might even press for inclusion in Surrealism. But Winkelhimer bears not even a hint of the signature Salvador Dali moustache and, of course, the facially hirsute Dali was never known for a matching, flamboyantly bushy anterior end.

Clearly, sciurus carolinensis could argue with success that this is Romanticism, plain and simple. There is something about his style, and the tilt of his talented paw, that touches the heart.

The bigger question, however, may well be this: What is Winkelhimer's next masterpiece to be? "Still Life With Walnut?" "Nude Descending a Maple?"

We can only expect great things.