A couple of days ago, hiking out the remnant of farm road that now serves as my driveway, I noticed a grey squirrel up the hill to my left. I noticed it because it noticed me. It stood upright, hips facing uphill, torso and neck twisted downhill facing me, and watched me carry a trash bag out to the bin, then slowly swiveled its top half watching me return. You might think it regarded me as a food delivery system, but once I started back, it went on about its business, showing no further interest in me or the stuffed bag I had just deposited.
Naturally, this got me to thinking about the difference between city squirrels and country squirrels. Squirrels are one of many species that thrive around human populations, foraging at bird feeders and rummaging through discarded containers and bags. Crows do this, too, but they are a topic for another day because while they absolutely fascinate me in every way, I have never collaborated with a crow on an art project, so in this one instance only, they are not relevant.
Several weeks ago, I warily bought a sumptuous orange pumpkin and placed it outside with a basket of flowers and a small scarecrow to herald the harvest season.
I was wary about buying this pumpkin, because in the densely populated New Jersey suburb where we were living last year, my pumpkin didn’t last 24 hours before a squirrel ate it. She probably had help, because the year before, as I drove away from the house to work one day, I saw several squirrels eating one I had placed on our retaining wall. They were very orderly about it, standing on their hind legs, wrapping their arms around as much of the surface as their reach permitted, and boring in with their tiny diamond shard teeth. By the time I got home from work, all that remained were the stems and the bottoms of the blossoms. I bought more pumpkins, which brought more squirrels, and therefore exponentially more tiny pumpkin-carving teeth. They were completely unabashed about it, too. One time, I rolled down the window and scolded them to stop, but they didn’t care. Then I realized they were probably hungry after a cold night and this was some good eating.
So last year, I created a small display on the front porch instead of the edge of the yard, naively thinking they might leave the pumpkins alone. I didn’t realize how dimwitted this sounds until just now. Like some of my like minded neighbors, I had begun putting out peanuts for the squirrels, because ever since Superstorm Sandy, we’d noticed a dearth of acorns from the mighty oak trees towering around our houses. This drew the squirrels up to our windowpanes and doors, and we began recognizing faces. Not each other’s faces, the faces of different squirrels, and I had taken a liking to a particular female whose right eye was a little cloudy.
I was working inside the house, periodically taking breaks at my front door to survey my still life with satisfaction, when lo, there was my favorite squirrel, really laying into my ghost pumpkin! Some friends and family may recall these photos, but I am still amused by them so am sharing again.
Evidently, ghost pumpkins are something of a delicacy in squirreldom, because it was the ghost pumpkin that was consumed first the year before, too. Mindful that this was a good repast for a cloudy-eyed squirrel, I was still dismayed that I hadn’t even gotten a day out of my homage to autumn.
Standing on my front steps surveying the damage to my exhibit, my consternation turned to inspiration. I went back inside and returned with a knife, squatted over the pumpkin, and made my return contribution to what I now viewed as an opportunity for interspecies artistic collaboration:
Any artist will tell you that no piece is ever finished, and within minutes, the stem – or as I thought of it, the nose – had been excised and cast aside in creative dispute. I used a toothpick to reattach it, but this squirrel was tenacious with her vision. When I went back to the window, I saw she had ripped it back off and tossed it down the brick stairs. Another thing any artist will tell you is that you have to know when to stop; I think she overdid it and lost the creative expression I was going for. I was too depressed to memorialize it with a photo.
This year, seeing my plump, smooth pumpkin yet untouched by country squirrels (six weeks!), I purchased three more, secretly hoping that someone might make the first cut, but still no takers. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Where is the utility? The give and take? Do I just chuck them into the woods on December 1? Since it’s not likely there are many kids smashing pumpkins out here, I am considering smashing them myself and scattering them along the edge of the woods. I will think of it as performance art, and thank the country squirrels for their unique collaboration.
Life is what you make it. Don’t overthink it.