It sits on our deck, huge and dare I say looming, eyeing our two actual cats through the sliding glass door, its little paws resting contentedly on its light brown belly, perfectly balanced on its back legs and long, gloriously flowing tail, waiting very insistently for something….for food.
It is the biggest squirrel I have ever seen.
It is not at all like the ground squirrels, or gray diggers as we call them, ubiquitous in Eastern Washington. Those squirrels do not live in trees, but in rocky outcrops and underground tunnels dug entirely too close to the septic tank’s main line. My Mom once hired a high schooler to eradicate said gray digger from our garden by “local means.”
Oh yes, he came, with his hunting license, his hunter’s orange, his rifle, and a lawn chair, sat quiet as a cat for at least two hours on our deck, his back to the house, watching the stone garden wall where the gray diggers were known to idle on warm rocks after stuffing their bellies with strawberries, and when the gun went off, “BAM!!” it scared us all ****less. Mom paid him. He packed up.
The next day, two more gray diggers sprouted from that same rock.
No, this “cat” is the eastern fox squirrel—brash, bold, beautiful, and as big as a cat. It’s as if an artist took a brush and blended the deepest shades of brown, tan, and rusted orange into one. Sometimes they drape themselves over our deck railing and sleep, waiting for someone to paint them. I’ve recently learned there is a name for this. It’s called “splooting.”
There are other squirrels in Michigan. Red and eastern gray squirrels (which include the black ones, somehow), and Michigan’s northern and southern flying squirrels (though I have never seen one) flitting in the treetops of our backyard and flirting with my newly bloomed tulips. I fire-walled those bulbs in the fall with black netting hidden under fallen leaves, fed them with bone meal and brought them through the last frosts of spring with burlap blankets, only to discover their superb, rich, red blooms decapitated one morning by hungry squirrels.
There are plenty of “local means” in Michigan that I could call.
A Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist had this to say in January, “It is not like anything you can get in the store, and it just has a very unique, light taste but kind of a nutty flavor in it.” (Detroit Free Press)
One day, longing for freedom from mothering and hoping to fill that hollow spot that needed my mother nature, I went to a patch of woods near our house. A rhythmic gnawing snatched my ear, and in the crook of a maple branch sat a fox squirrel. She held a pine cone in her clever, furry fingers, and chewed the seeds and spit the chaff out the side of her mouth, which was turned up in a kind of sideways crescent. Eye level with me, happy to let me watch the bright brown fur that outlined her eyes, the perfectly shaped tail that exactly mirrored the curve of her back, her thin lips, moving so nimbly and fast that the pine cone came apart in a blur of precision, leaving shreds behind like leaves on the trail until just a cone-cob remained.
She chattered at me, loudly. I had watched long enough.
Watching squirrels, the Iroquois story goes, taught people how to tap trees. Robin Kimmerer, a mother, plant ecologist and writer, tells the story in her book, “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Squirrels were hungry, and so were people. It was the hungry time—the end of winter and the beginning of spring—so squirrels gnawed at tree branches with their spile-like teeth and licked the sap that seeped out while it flowed up the outer and inner bark from the tree’s underground “root” cellar. Last year’s sunshine for this year’s life.
The squirrel-tapped sap froze on the surface and then—sublimation. It was so cold that water in the sap transformed directly into a gas, leaving a bead of sweeter sap the squirrels returned to for food.
Kimmerer describes how Native Americans around the Great Lakes used long, hollowed out logs to sublimate sap on a large scale. They poured sap into the shallow channel so it would freeze. Then, they would chip out water that was now ice, distilling sap with cold instead of heat to save precious fuel.
This is the second year that we have tapped a tree in our backyard. Can’t get much more Michigan than the simple fact that we even thought about doing it. And a Silver Maple, no less, not even a sugar one.
As the smoke from our fire curled into our neighbor’s backyard, he did not miss a beat. “Boiling sap?” It does smell delicious. Our arch was rudimentary. The sap, smoky. Ten gallons of sap, 5 hours of solid burning, and 1 pint of syrup. We were as excited as kids when we poured it on pancakes and used it in cocktails. We live in a city of 50,000 people, and our neighborhood is full of maple trees and squirrels.
An urban sugar bush.
Everything is flowing, the tree sap, the blood in my heart, the Red Cedar River, the stories about people and squirrels who lived here for thousands of years before we did, and my gradual understanding of where my family lives, eats, and watches squirrels.
Nothing is still.
Especially not the over-sized squirrel sitting on my deck that destroyed my tulips and taught people how to tap trees.