My father used to sit at his kitchen window, a cup of tea in front of him, the smoke of a cigarette spiraling into the air, and cuss at the squirrels raiding his birdfeeders They drove him crazy. He’d bang on the window, or open it up and yell at them.
It didn’t matter. They always came back.
He’d think he’d come up with some new contraption to fend them off, to keep them away from the seeds he put out for his beloved birds, but it never worked. Not for long, anyway. Such is the ability of squirrels to solve puzzles.
You could say that in those last years, when he lived alone, he was cursed by squirrels for they became the bane of his existence.
When Atticus and I first moved to Jackson, it was in the spring. Soon after, we met a sweet old lady who was very active. When she found out that I fed the squirrels and the chipmunks, she visibly shuddered.
“Why on earth would you do that?” She demanded. I couldn’t help but think of dear old dad, especially when she went on to tell me how she coped with them during gardening season.
“I take a big metal pail and fill it up halfway with water. Then I take a narrow piece of wood and lay it across the top. After that, I lined that wood with sunflower seeds.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.
She smiled. Not a kind smile. It was a cunning one. “The chipmunks loved the sunflower seeds and would go up on that piece of wood to retrieve them, but the wood was so narrow they’d fall in the water and drown.”
That’s when it was my turn to shudder. That’s also when I decided I’d always feed our chipmunks and squirrels.
I don’t feed our local bears and don’t put out anything when the bears are active. But the rest of the year I take comfort in having a kinship of kindness with all other wild things. I put out seeds and fruits for the various souls that visit our yard. It’s become a regular thing, one that is quite popular with our winged and four legged neighbors.
Nearly every morning, soon after the sun is up, three crows balance on the lone tree that floats in the middle of our backyard. It’s not well and every year there is some talk about removing that old black ash. But I don’t dare, for while it’s the last tree to dress herself in leaves in the spring and the first to drop them in September (and even then they are not very pretty), the local wildlife take comfort in that tree.
One night, when I was taking Atticus out one last time before we went to bed, I saw two sets of eyes about five feet off the ground in the black ash. I walked over next to the tree, those four eyes transfixed by my beaming headlamp, and came face to face with two curious baby raccoons. They sat in that tree looking at me from just two feet away, and they were just as interested in me.
Through the past six years I’ve seen all kinds of life in that tree from the regular visiting birds to hawks and owls. I’ve also seen bears who were comical in the way they seemed to think they could hind behind narrow branches as if they were invisible.
Here it is, the middle of winter again. There are a couple of feeders on the tree, both loaded with a variety of seeds. On our second floor deck, I have a suet feeder and a sunflower seed feeder. The way they are set up and designed, they are marketed as “squirrel-proof.” This would please my dearly-departed father. But then he’d howl at me for the way I take a small bucket of seeds out nearly every morning, and spread them across the top of the snow. These, as you might have guessed, are for the squirrels.
Each morning, just before I refill the feeders, I find myself reading either poetry or essays. Today, I read an essay bemoaning what was going on in the world today from the hatred of terrorists, to the hatred of presidential candidates, to the hatred of militiamen, and I was reminded to hold onto hope.
Today’s essay, written by Omid Safi on the On Being website, contained the following: “A few days ago I was reminded when a friend posted a note on social media about an old tradition in Ottoman societies (today’s Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bosnia, Greece, etc.). Whenever it snows, people go to the top of a mountain and scatter seeds for birds. The reason is as simple as it is immediate: birds are creatures of God. And as the Prophet said, if you want the All-Merciful God to show you mercy, show mercy to the creation of the All-Merciful.”
And there I had it. In a world where terror and hate often take over center stage and the front page of the newspaper and the first story on the evening news, there are millions of us in the world doing something so simple as feeding birds (and squirrels) in the bleak midwinter.
I’m not sure about you, but I believe in a world were millions perform these random acts of kindness. Something as simple as filling a birdfeeder is reason for hope, there is reason to believe in kindness, and there is proof that our hearts can be as active as our heads and our egos.
Such is the light of day in the darkest and the coldest of the four seasons. Hope exists, sometimes anonymously.