The Thrum Of Brooding Strings

First things first: I hate the effing squirrel. And thinking about this once more, it occurs to me that I’m pissed at his relatives too–each one of those fast-learning, extended family members without benefit of cute nicknames. But let’s be clear; Chewy–the name I’ve given my squirrely nemesis–is only incidentally cute. Because it’s as literal and descriptive a nickname as I’ve ever managed (and if not the king of nicknaming, I’m certainly the prince-consort of the practice).

Chewy, he chews things–all manner of things: the tops of stockade fences, the edges of roof gutters and the associated down-spouts, terra-cotta pots, railroad ties, adirondack chairs, garden hoses, the lids of plastic trash cans, begonias, entire flats of pansies, the occasional lupin, and especially jack-o-lanterns. But, remarkably, he ignores the impatiens–which are seemingly squirrel Kryptonite.

And as long as we’re in waist-deep background, there are three other things to understand about Chewy: First, the locust-cum-termite behavior isn’t a seasonal thing, and it’s certainly not squirrel-business-as-usual: Big C is a non-stop gnawer without precedent. And I should know, because prior to the Coming of Chewy, both my house and I had managed to peaceably coexist with countless generations of squirrels. Second, Chewy is a genius–at least among his scatterbrained peers. But that’s not accurate: Chewy is an Evil Genius; he is the Moriarty of squirrels. Third, the other members of his circle, the ones who also live on my property, are learning from the little bastard. It’s one thing to have a gifted squirrel breaking bad, but quite another when he shows a talent for teaching. It’s a bit like one of those deliciously creepy sci-fi moments, when it’s determined that somehow the perimeter has been breached, and the deadly virus has spilled into the outside world. In my case, it’s Chewyvirales Omnivorous–unstoppable and eating through a neighborhood near you . . . (Cue the dark, brooding string arrangement.)

Throughout this year, Chewy and I have been playing chess with my house and landscaping. For instance, this past autumn I set out a pumpkin, and Chewy’s countermove was to start to gnawing on it. I then turned the ripped skin toward the house and poured half a bottle of tabasco over it. Chewy’s response was to signal his approval of Southwestern cuisine by tunneling inside the five-alarm pumpkin and then out through the top–pretty much the way James Caan tackled that vault in Thief. Prior to this, in the spring, Chewy bit through my garden hose and I repaired it with duct tape. The next morning he returned and, to make a point, once again chewed through the hose, about six inches down from the repair. After a week of this parry-and-thrust over my right to water the flowers, the hose had morphed into 50 feet of duct tape, which made me conspicuous in the front yard–as if I’d forgotten to put on my tinfoil gardening hat.

Then in summer, some coyotes emerged from the park and claimed my backyard as part of their temporary territory. Transfixed, I watched them in the moonlight doing their collective and surprisingly cliched Coyote Thing, and the next morning I dutifully informed my pet-owning neighbors. But even in mid-Paul-Revere, I kept thinking, well, if Chewy doesn’t realize Wile E. and his family have moved in, then, well, youknow–Nature Sadly Taking Its Course; a briefly violent National Geographic Moment. After which I’d have a moment of silence for the late Chewy T. Squirrel, PhD, and then go off to confidently purchase a new garden hose.

But as noted, Chewy is a genius. Within four days, the coyotes had disappeared. County animal control said that it had nothing to do with it, that they had planned to swing into action at week’s end. It was assumed Wile E. and family had simply returned to the park, but oddly, no adjacent neighborhoods subsequently reported seeing them. And the next time I saw Chewy–gnawing on a cast-stone relief hanging on the fence–he gave me this weirdly knowing, Tony Soprano kind of look; a hey-I’m-just-a-member-of-the-rodent-family-but-I-don’t-think-they’ll-be-back-because-it’s-kind-of-dangerous-out-here-if-you-know-what-I-mean stare. For weeks afterwards, every time I saw an overpass under construction, I’d stare at its newly poured concrete supports and wonder about the coyotes.

Given my history with Chewy, you’d think any cartoonish, Acme Company misfortune that might befall him–oversized sticks of bright-red dynamite; chunky, hurtling anvils; that can of paint that makes a solid wall of rock look like the entrance to a train tunnel–you’d think that this sort of assisted intervention of fate vis a vis Chewy would be something I’d welcome. And just three months ago you’d be right.

But what if the aforementioned Fate-With-Assistance wasn’t cartoonish? What if it was disconcerting, brutal and sad? Because here’s the thing: The oak trees around here have stopped making acorns. Let’s hover on this point so we’re completely clear about this: There are no acorns. Not fewer acorns, Not smaller acorns. There are no acorns at all. The oaks (and hickories, too) have simply stopped making nuts. They’ve ceased to propagate. Thousands of trees, all at once, all in one season. You can literally walk through miles of oaks and not see a single acorn.

If you’re waiting for the proverbial second shoe to plummet, forget it. No one understands why the oaks and hickories have shut down nut production en masse. And yes, of course scientists have mumbled their way through various esoteric theories–but, bottom line, there is no answer. Na-da. Frankly, this has spooked me–which in itself should be cause for alarm, because I don’t easily spook. The situation is beginning to feel like a particularly disturbing episode of Fringe playing out in Real Life. I keep thinking about frog die-offs and honeybee hive collapse syndrome and, unavoidably, the apophenia clicks in.

I’m not saying the disappearance of acorns is a portent, but the problem is that no one can assure me that it’s not. And so we arrive back at that deliciously creepy sci-fi moment; when it’s determined that somehow the perimeter has been breached, and a mysterious something has spilled into the outside world: The sudden and complete disappearance of acorns–inexplicable, and possibly moving toward a neighborhood near you . . . (Will you cue the dark, brooding string arrangement, or should
I?)

In these circumstances, the brutal, natural equation is succinct: Take away acorns and squirrels die. They starve, but before that, they do crazy, desperate things to get food–things that make Chewy look well-behaved and reasonable. And while there’s no love lost between him and me, I find his starvation unacceptable. Because deep down I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t just Nature taking its course; it’s the unintended consequences of thoroughly crappy human interaction with the planet. It isn’t about the not-me of coyotes or the third-party agency of the Acme Company. It’s about us.

And so these days I’m feeding the squirrels–you’d probably be shocked to know how many unshelled peanuts I’m distributing. These days, even though I still glare at him, Chewy is getting room service care of yours truly. I wish I could say that a dramatic and suitably seasonable life lesson is lurking in this story–like Scrooge’s transformation or the Grinch turning the sled around–but I can’t. I still genuinely hate Chewy and, come spring, when it’s time to plant flowers and use garden hoses, I plan on hating him even more. But right now, it’s about evening-out the Zen. Because as much as Chewy has fucked around with my house and yard, there’s no proof I haven’t been complicit in his starvation–which is a much worse way of screwing him back. Thus, for the next few months I’ll be busy with peanut delivery as I trying to ignore his triumphant, sneering little face.

Small steps. It’s best, I think, not to squint too far into the future. Because if I push the predictions past spring, chances are I might end up thinking about next fall and whether there will be acorns. Which, of course, no one can say with certainty anymore. How strange it is to write that.