" One Squirrelly Summer"
By Lakin Khan
After the super-hot weeks in June and the wildfires in July, August was mostly a cooler, subdued month, fog lingering around sometimes well past noon. Until the last week, that is, when it became blistering once again. On one of the warmer (though not ultra-hot) days, I’ve escaped the chilled office for a mid-morning stroll to stretch my legs, my back, my shoulders, my mind – all those things that get hunched and cramped sitting at a desk. My wanderings take me around the pond and down the Butterfly Garden path; ahhh, the sun’s heat is a therma-pak, a molten mantle across my shoulders and arms. Mourning cloaks wing by, and then a few white cabbage butterflies.
At the edge of the butterfly meadow, I find a toasty-warm bench, welcome to my tense back. The wind soughs through the nearby grove of pines and firs, a soothing white noise. Cheep …chip…chip; towhees scuffle and hop in the brown leaf litter under the bushes, sounding like a smoke alarm or phone chirping randomly as the batteries run down. A hummingbird whirs by, so loud and close I jump and then have to laugh at myself. A stern cherk-chuck-chuck-chuck sounds overhead; leaves rustle briskly, the flouncing branches delineating the path of a squirrel dashing along its arboreal highway. It stops for a brief moment in the big leaf maple, crouched in the angle of branch and trunk; soft gray coat, flick flick flick of tail, small paws clutched to chest as it glances about—then faster than Peoplesoft crashing on the first day of classes, off it goes: a streak of gray, the fluffy tail a banner streaming behind.
This is the western gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus of the Order Rodentia, one of several species on the West Coast, though our largest and only native tree squirrel. Scuirus, from the Greek scuiria meaning “shadow-tail,” for the squirrel’s tendency to flip their long tails back, spreading them over their heads much like an umbrella as protection from inclement weather or predators. Ranging from Baja California to southern Washington, it’s primarily a woodland creature, never straying too far from trees and their precious commodities, nuts and hypogeous fungi (that’s truffles to most of us). Unlike its recently imported cousins, the eastern gray squirrel or fox squirrel, the shyer western gray avoids human habitation and is unlikely to be found in urban parks or suburban backyards. Even on campus, it’s unusual to see these squirrels in the inner quads or around the buildings; they are most likely found in the trees near the creek or along the edges of campus; fringe elements—so to speak.
They are cheeky little fellows, these squirrels, and they make me laugh just by scampering about. With fall approaching, humans and squirrels alike are getting busier and busier: students collecting classes, faculty collecting students, AC’s collecting information, squirrels collecting and stashing as much as they can against the winter and low food supplies. And while they hide much, they remember less — known as scatter-hoarders, squirrels inadvertently become important distributors of seeds for the next generation of saplings.
I have never seen a slow squirrel. At rest perhaps, and then only briefly; even chowing down on an acorn goes at a fast clip. Watching them dash up, down, around a tree, grabbing an acorn, bouncing across tree limbs, racing up-down-around again, scrabbling in the pine needles, darting up-down-around again, disappearing for five minutes, returning to repeat the whole dance: it’s dizzying. It seems random and, well, squirrelly, kind of like the weather, though we know there are reasons for the odd behavior of both, even if some people have a difficult time admitting it.
A squirrel’s love for nuts is the stuff of legends and metaphor. High in fat, carbohydrates and protein, nuts are necessary for a squirrel’s survival over the lean months. Once grasped, a squirrel is biologically programmed not to let go until the thing is eaten or cached, often putting the critter into some odd predicaments. They can be deemed pests in our walnut, almond and filbert orchards, bustling about for the goodies, but I’m sure squirrels think of them as large and abundant Safeways, hustling that much harder before the nuts spoil and go to waste.
It will become exceedingly hot just as August ends; the wild swings in the weather pattern rather unnerving. I'm sure the scurrying squirrels weren’t fooled for a moment, continuing to tuck acorns away all day and retreating each night (they are strictly diurnal) to their tree-hollow dens or nests (known as dreys), large affairs of sticks and leaves built high in the treetops. There they will ride out the winter, just as we will ride out the semester, with an eye towards the weather and wondering what winter will bring.
Photo courtesy of Rod Gilbert.