Prose Poem: The Feng Shui Of Squirrels

“There are too many squirrels! ” my wife exclaimed. “They've taken over. They not only eat all the birdseed I put out, they eat the bird feeders themselves. They’re gnawing their way into the birdhouses too. Do you think they’ll start in on the house? ”

I looked through the kitchen window above the sink. She was right. On the lawn before my eyes, more than a dozen squirrels gamboled on the sun-dappled grass, dug relentlessly in an area I was trying to reseed that spring, chased each other through the branches, and swung acrobatically from the feeders they were plundering. Goldfinches, titmice, sparrows, chickadees and a few warblers perched uncertainly in the branches above. Only the mourning doves, whose gentle tones and appearance belie an unexpectedly resolute nature, seemed willing to challenge the squirrels in the search for food.

“They’re lemmings determined to push others into the sea for a change, ” my wife fumed. “Can’t you do something? ”

So that afternoon I drove into town and purchased an environmentally sanctioned Havahart cage trap and a big bag of peanuts. Squirrel Season was about to begin.

The first day I bagged two, the following day four, then another three, two the next, then four again. Each angry, sputtering squirrel I drove more than a mile away to a secret spot I had determined to be well hidden from curious windows of neighboring houses. It was a woody place that promised good habitat for small furry critters, and there I let my captives go.

But our squirrel population remained the same.

I borrowed a second Havahart trap from the friend of a friend. When both traps were filled, I would cart them away. It soon became a daily ritual: deport two little beggars as the day began, and another two after work. Four a day, regular as clockwork, yet the number of squirrels in the yard remained unchanged.

As the days passed, other creatures occasionally wound up in the traps: several blue jays and an extremely annoyed crow that continued to complain loudly of its mistreatment from a nearby branch long after I had freed it. A young vixen fox taken twice within a week seemed more embarrassed about having been found settling for peanuts rather than pursuing more adventuresome food. Once a skunk blundered in, and my ingenuity was seriously challenged in coming up with a way of letting it go without it letting go.

A downy woodpecker figured how to steal the bait without releasing the door trigger. So did several small ground squirrels, which look just like chipmunks without the head stripe and proved little enough to squeeze through the sides of the iron mesh cage if they sprung the door trigger despite their generally light-footed ways. Occasionally I’d find a sprung but empty trap, but not too often.

As some squirrels grew more cautious around the traps, I became more expert at trapping them. I learned how to place the peanut bait in the most alluring way, varied my bait with crackers and peanut butter, discovered new wiles and gambits to lure them in.
So my daily bag remained quite constant.

Yet by the time my total reached fifty, the number on the lawn had actually seemed to swell. How could this be?

Inevitably, my newfound pastime brought greater knowledge of my quarry. I found that they were uniform only in their depredations; otherwise, they came in several different species and a variety of sizes, colors and dispositions. Most were brown, gray and ocher but a few were black. One sported an impressive palomino coat and enormously bushy tail, while another with an unhealthy albino hue had a scrawny tail more like a rat. They arrived from leafy nests high in the trees, from the brush and saplings beyond the lawn, from birdhouses they had appropriated, from the woodpile, and lord knows where else.

In pursuit of their daily activities, they squeaked, growled, chattered, ground their teeth, whined, or even bleated and gasped like my aunt. Some were playful while others were more dour. There were alpha-squirrels and those who always seemed the butt of others’ harassment. In adverse circumstances—like finding themselves on the wrong side of a cage door that had just slammed down) -some were feisty and aggressive, some hysterical, or timid and easily cowed by circumstances beyond their control. One just uttered little peeps of dismay, clutching her bosom over her quaking heart, fearing the path to freedom when offered and complicating matters by escaping into the car itself and hiding under a seat. It took ten minutes and an old broom to get her out.

Whatever kinds of squirrels I carted away—large or small, brown or gray, testy or timid—there always seemed more of the same waiting to flaunt themselves the next day.

My father-in-law, greatly amused by my faltering relocation program, sent me a cartoon depicting columns of squirrels all converging on our house. From then on, every time I encountered one on the road, I fretted about its destination. My nature-loving vegetarian daughter conjured visions of babies abandoned in their nests and begged me to stop. When she shared her concerns with my mother, I began receiving worried phone calls from her as well. My little boy laughed and said I looked funny always carrying squirrels around in boxes. In a flat, rather expressionless voice, my wife informed me that when his school class shared stories about what their did for a living, our son said I was a squirrel collector.

Even my wife, she who had been the original impetus behind my struggle to adjust the balance of nature in our yard, seemed to grow less enthusiastic about my squirrel removal project. She grew silent and withdrawn, and I found that she had dusted off her old Beatrix Potter books and begun rereading Squirrel Nutkin to herself, muttering as she read.

Clearly, this test of wills with the squirrels was no longer a laughing matter. My efforts had proved ineffectual, and my standing in the household was suffering.

The number of deportees passed sixty, then seventy and eighty, and still the number of squirrels seemed unabated. Recalling Lady Macbeth’s confident assurance to her husband that he would prevail if only he screwed his courage to the sticking point, I considered ratcheting the struggle up to a more bloodthirsty level. I began wondering about recipes in cookbooks on authentic colonial fare. What were the original ingredients in Brunswick Stew, anyway?

The 1975 edition of Joy Of Cooking included excitingly graphic drawings of how to skin a squirrel. I was disheartened to find, however, that neither there nor in the 75th anniversary edition that we had recently purchased did author Irma Rombauer or her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker offer much beyond a general observation that most chicken recipes could also be used successfully for squirrel, and a recipe for walnut sauce.

As I shifted my gaze from my increasingly estranged spouse, remote in her easy chair with her Potter book, to the pest-infested lawn beyond the window, Lady M’s fiery words did little to bolster my drooping spirits.

An Internet search yielded a terse acknowledgment by two naturalists of the Wildlife Damage Management System that “squirrels could become a nuisance when their feeding and nesting habits conflict with human interests.” Although squirrel numbers could be reduced by predation, shooting, poisoning and trapping, the results were often short-lived, they noted, and were unlikely to affect squirrel populations in the long term in areas with good food and cover. They did not speculate on the nature and scope of the replentishing process.

The fact is that I seemed to have created a squirrel black hole, a vortex that sucked in squirrels from adjacent neighborhoods, then surrounding communities and undeveloped areas, and then from more remote lands beyond the horizon. As the days passed and I began returning home at lunchtime to keep transportation equal to demand, I could only wonder how far the effects of this vacuum were extending.

Sometime after I had carted away my hundredth protesting rodent, I read of a teenage boy on a distant reservation in Minnesota who shot fellow classmates and school staff. He left no note explaining his spasm of profound and inarticulate grief and rage. Had his equilibrium been overturned by a sharp fluctuation in the squirrel population in his area?

And what about the newly burgeoning nuclear programs The North Koreans and Iranians and their nuclear bombs? What about the return of the Afghan Taliban and the unexpected growth in the numbers and violence of fanatics in Iraq. What of the spike in global warming? Or had I unwittingly stumbled upon an exception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics that tossed entropy on its head and might lead to consequences disastrous beyond imagining? Recalling earlier experiments to develop military applications for dolphin and bats, I wondered whether reckless politicians and misguided scientists, either American or part of the Axis of Evil, could fashion a Star Wars system based on squirrels.

Perhaps I had blundered into a hitherto unknown parallel universe. Had I begun siphoning its squirrels into our own universe in utter ignorance of the potential outcomes of this unprecedented transfer of mass and energy?

Shaken by these visions of the possible far-flung consequences of my battle with the squirrels, of the potential disequilibrium and madness rippling outward from my own ground-zero back lawn, I began to doubt the project I had begun so cavalierly months ago. As Kenny Rogers sang, “You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” There comes a time, I realized, when even resolute promises must be rethought.

Then the friend of a friend wanted his trap back, and then somewhere around one hundred and thirty I lost count. And eventually, of course, I stopped.

A year later, our bags of birdseed still do not last. Our lawn continues to resemble an exhausted playing field worn thin from hotly contested rugby games. We continue to spend exorbitant amounts on feed, feeders, birdhouses-and now professional lawn care as well. We try not to think about the squirrels too much.

But I remember to take my wife out to the movies. And there in the dark with only the flickering light of the screen, we hold hands, reconciled in the wisdom of my decision to bow to the inevitable in the interests of domestic harmony and world peace.

by Chuck Toll

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