Is that a cat?

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.

Sublimation.

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.

The Marvelous Buffer of Time…

I notice, has worked to absorb and redistribute the last two years of pandemic shock waves.

​Ebb and flow

In the fall of 2021, we dropped our girls off at their first day of school after a harried summer, but I swear I had just picked them up from their last day of school, which was a hair’s breadth away from their first day back at school after nearly a year of virtual school. The student’s excited voices and first-day-of-school smiles muffled by masks.

Low tide of loss

It feels like so much time has passed since my Dad passed, but it is the same two years layered on top of the girls’ interrupted school routine. Three summers, two winters, already, without him. The grief no longer crashes down on me. I pick up memories of Dad as I walk through a day like we used to pick up the sand dollars he loved on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Sand dollars are slime-fuzzy purple when alive, white as bone when they are not. They are easier to find than petoskey stones, but no less wonderful.

Wave swells

The cats aged, and the kids, and the chicken. I thought she was going to lay her last egg, so to speak, but she must have heard me say that out loud ’cause she perked (pecked?) back up and is still going strong. The garden has another two years of wild iterations. At the end of August, tall and stemmy, reaching out to bumble bees, smelling of anise hyssop. Now in 2022, two new apple trees cushoined in snow.

Soothing lake waves

The pandemic left our calendar hatch wide open, inviting friends from Ohio back into our lives. We met at Shavehead Lake. The startling name fails to keep ethereal swans away, or the people at the campground who brought our meals to the cabin each day and stocked our fire pits with gasoline-soaked wood chips. Kids tangled arms and blankets. We jumped into Shavehead Lake in late summer (warm), fall (still warm), and early spring (shockingly cold). 

Then camping in Wilderness Park in June. Drive north until you get to the bridge, but just before crossing it, turn left like a troll and end up at Stone Bay. I took naps on the beach, grasses rustling, with beach spiders of every shape and size scuttling across endless games of tic-tac-toe in the sand.

And later that year, many trips to Lake Lansing, more to Lake Michigan, Grand Traverse Bay…as the pandemic waves came and receded, Michigan’s water bodies soothed the blows, provided days where I didn’t think about a virus or a mask because

I was on the water,

buffered by waves and time,

and by this last marvelous thing.

There were moments, days, I got angry with people who, during a pandemic in which hundreds of thousands have died, did not wear a mask in the simplest of public situations: a rest stop along Hwy 127, going north for solo camping on Drummond Island. I cursed at them under my mask. Glared holes into their maskless faces. Blamed them for the never ending worry of sending my kids to school without a vaccine, for stressing health care workers to the breaking point, for not considering the larger picture, the human landscape.

I fumed all the way to Detour where a ferry would take me across St. Marys River to an island, an island away from people. I got out of the car, stretched, tried to shake off my anger. Checked the ferry fare on a large board at the dock, decided not to buy food from a small food truck parked nearby, and was flooded with memories of all those ferries I took to Lopez Island, Washington, so many ferry lines like this and so many mis-remembered ferry schedules. I said goodbye to a boyfriend from Seattle that I had just broken up with on his way to miss the only ferry off of the island that day…A long night. A long time before this pandemic.

Detour Ferry

“Have you been on a ferry before?” he startled me from his Dodge pickup. Carharts, no mask, the kind of person I was recently furious with but also genuinely devastated by. My grief for people dying each day of Covid I absolutely laid at the feet of people who drove a pickup and wore boots like those.

“Um, yes, but not this one.” 

“$20 round trip, and you can pay on the ferry.”

“Thanks. Do you live on the island or…?” Being nice on the outside, gritting teeth under my mask.

“Yes ma’am. I commute from Drummond almost every day for work.”

“That’s a nice commute though. I’ve never been on the island, but I’m thinking of camping there tonight and tomorrow. Do you recommend any good camping sites?”

“If it were me, I’d just drive into the woods and find a spot, but Yacht Haven marina has showers and a nice lawn you can pitch your tent on by the water.”

A little wary, I decided to stick to my original plan, the township campground on the northwest shore.

“Okay, I’ll check it out. Thanks.”

The ferry chugged in from its short jaunt across the river. It unloaded cars and trucks and even a semitruck carrying enormous tree trunks. The last ferry I’d been on was with my Dad–the last time I was with him before we knew about his pancreatic cancer. Then came the familiar routine: car doors shut, engines ignite, the line slowly pulls forward, this car left, this truck right, me straight behind a pickup towing a fishing boat. Engines off. Ferry pulls away, and we are on the water. I got out to peer over the tall rim of the boat and waited to pay my fare. The ferry worker never came. Annoyed, I went to find him.

“He’s got you covered.” Points to Mr. Carhart’s pickup.

Immediately my body went slack under this wave of unexpected kindness. All of my silent judgment washed away like jagged flotsam. The warm surprise of gratitude quickly rushed in behind.

I spent two nights on Drummond Island, a long, langorious weeekend of walks, exploring new geology (more on that later), solitude, loons calling in the morning, the most glorious sunset I’ve seen in a long time, wishing for a paddle board.

I had just enough cash to pay for my camping spot, $30, thanks to my ferry godfather.

Michigan smells different…

“Like we’re camping.”

The first positive words that came out of my mouth about our new home in East Lansing, Michigan were olfactory. I sat on the top step of the back deck, our 3-month-old cradled in my arms, back aching after moving quickly and sleeping badly and breastfeeding constantly, and breathed in the spicy, evening scent coming from the exhalation of old trees and the swampy-sandy soil I would soon be completely baffled by when trying to grow anything other than purslane (edible), creeping charlie (I confess I love the smell of it) or sedges (native).

I did not want to be on that step.  

My back to our unfamiliar house, my eyes wandered along the tops of the pine trees concealing the parking lot on the other side of our fence, the human-sized eastern black nightshade and garlic mustard inside the fence and the enormous wild cherry leaning uncomfortably over the fence.

This was not the step I wanted to take.

We had been living in Columbus, OH (Michiganders, stay with me) for 5 years already, and I was ready to move on. True, Columbus had a food scene that satisfied the cravings of two, older-than-30-something graduate students who enjoyed a bite beyond Chipotle. True, our dearest friends lived in Columbus and our two-year-old daughter’s first, dearest playmate: all heartbreak (hearth-break) to step away from.

But if we had to leave, I planned to go west, all the way to the coast where I could stand and spit into the Pacific Ocean on any given day, as my Grandpa would say, or at least a river that ended up there. Somewhere between Oregon and Canada.

Instead, we went roughly 3 degrees North and 2 degrees West from the middle of Ohio to the middle of Michigan.

Columbus, OH:
39.9612 N by 82.9988 degrees W
East Lansing, MI:
​42.7370 N by 84.4839 degrees W

People refer to Michigan as “the mitten.” There’s a reason why they do. You need them. Winters are cold. And long. I’m writing at the end of April and last week we had an inch of snow. No one gets their hopes up above freezing until the middle of May. 

Oh, and Lower Michigan is a mitten-shaped peninsula, a wool-wrapped hand gently patting the frozen waters of the Great Lakes.

Michiganders do that thing where they hold up their hand in the shape of a mitten, fingers together, thumb out, and point to where they live. I swore I would never do that.

We bought our first home right in the middle of the mitten. Hold out your right hand facing away from you, fingers together, thumb out to the right and put your left pointer finger in the middle of the palm of your left hand. There we are. Dead center. Oops.

When I did the mitten thing for someone the very first time, my thumb, meant to be representing the Blue Water Area of Michigan (think Flint, Detroit, Motown, light houses, St. Clair River flowing into the largest fresh water delta in the world and driving south to Canada) pointed the wrong way. It was sticking itself into Lake Michigan instead of Lake Huron, looking to hitch a ride West (wait, is that right?).

I know, my hand’s backwards

I was inwardly rebellious of the entire lower mitten, not to mention the other one above it.

What’s the big deal with the cherries and the apples? I grew up in Eastern Washington with plenty of apples, cherries, apricots, peaches, pears and grapes. Washintonians also say “pop” instead of “soda” and we never drink either one with something called a Pastie (short “a” sound, not long). Trolls and Yoopers (no comment)? I tried it, and Superman ice cream is gross (Michiganders can throw some at the screen if you like). Can the Great Lakes compare with the Pacific Ocean? Why does everyone casually mention they’re going up North to their cabin for the weekend? What’s up there, and why does everyone have a whole other house, excuse me, cabin? Why can’t I just turn left without being forced to first turn right?! Do I have to love Sparty (my daughter fell in love the minute he mimicked her picking her nose at an MSU baseball game) or the Lions (I grew up loving Seahawks)? Will I need to learn Euchre (my husband’s family plays Pitch, for all you Nebraskans out there) or how to cross country ski?

Not           my            step

I eventually pulled my daughter close, got up from the top step of our deck, went upstairs and opened the bedroom window of our 1948-built home that first night, and almost every night after, because the air smelled good. Even though we lived in the middle of East Lansing in the middle of Michigan in the Midwest, that smell in the air was annoyingly, invitingly, invigorating.

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