Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chipmunks and Squirrels and Hope in a Dark Season

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. 


sistermek said...

How lovely to find a new post! It made me think of the lovely story of the Velveteen Rabbit. That old tree may not be beautiful, but, it shelters and comforts and gives of is real. I look forward to many more posts. Please give my best to the little giant.

Anonymous said...

Love this!!! Thank you Tom!

Claire S. said...

So good to see you post again. Been missing you guys!

Anonymous said...

There's some of the good energy I've been missing while you have been on vacation. Welcome back. - John

Judy said...

How apropos that you would post this on Squirrel Appreciation Day! Before I leave for work in the morning, I leave a few peanuts in the shell and an occasional walnut or two on my front porch for my squirrel friends. The squirrel-proof feeder that I purchased this fall actually works! So, I felt it was important to feed the birds AND squirrels.

Debbie said...

Tomorrow I will start to scatter seeds for the birds and the squirrels as a statement of hope for the world. AND I will continue to do intentional acts of kindness and acts of justice where I am able. Thank you!

Cathy Hall said...

Such a wonderful post. I refilled my feeders yesterday.

Terri R. said...

I enjoy all of your blog posts but this one really resonated with me since I too enjoy feeding the birds, as well as any other small creature that make their way into my yard. We offer them corn, peanuts, safflower, sunflower and thistle seeds, and keep a heated bird bath for them to have fresh water on the coldest winter days. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words. For us they are like the seeds that you spread for your wild friends. They nourish our hearts and remind us that there is kindness and reason to hope for a better tomorrow.

Sharon said...

Every time I have the written words of Tom in front of me, he is able to make me feel like I am there, I can see what he is talking about. Love your writing Tom. Thank you, SLHH

Betty and Lenny said...

Hi Tom,

Did you know today is Squirrel Appreciation Day? A day set aside to honor and enjoy these animals that scamper all over our yards, burying nuts, and sharing the seeds, with the birds, from the feeders.

They making me giggle. I love watching them - such interesting creatures.

I try to celebrate the winged and four-legged beings, that we share this wonderful world with, every day.

They make me happy and peaceful.

Wishes for you and Atticus to be warm and safe.

Feel the hugs.


Anonymous said...

Great post Tom! I also feed the birds, chipmunks and of course the squirrels. Last week I had a surprise visitor out with all the birds and squirrels, Mr. Chipmunk. Chip made several trips back and forth replenishing his stash for the rest of the winter. There is hope all around!

Beth Schell said...

I am happily enjoying all of the birds, squirrels and other wildlife partaking in the seeds and suet in our feeders. Lovely way to start the day. Thank you so much for the reminder that hope can be found in the smallest of gestures!

KatVon said...

Lovely story, true there is so much beauty in our natural world, even if the "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder. I have had the recent pleasure of witnessing 14 wild Muscovy ducklings be hatched in my rear yard then follow their very devoted mother around while she protected them, fed them, taught them to eat, then swim, then fly. People in my community would feed them bags of torn bread, while I would hand them information about how REALLY BAD it is to feed wild ducks bread and some would let their children yell and chase after the lovely birds. I calmly would sit down beside them and had them all practically climbing in my lap. I never fed them and certainly never yelled at them or chased them. They knew my calm presence was a place they like to hang out by and although only 6 "teenagers" remain as Mama and the others have flown to parts unknown, the 6 regularly swim in the canal behind me and come right up to my rear screened porch to dry off, feed and nap, knowing they will always hear a gentle "hello" from me and will always welcome them to my little patch of the world.

Carole Jurack said...

Good to see you back, Tom. Your blogs posts are always interesting, titillating and motivating. I, too, keep the feeders filled for the backyard birds and the front yard birds. Same food, but different birds! Interesting. Guess there are a lot of us out there with hope in our hearts. Thank you for posting. We are spending the winter in OH this year but missing NH and ME so reading your blogs brings us "home" to where we want to be.

Gail Adkinson said...

Hi, Tom, So glad to see this post. Been missing you two. I was stunned by the old lady you mentioned. while I might not deliberately feed squirrels, I find her treatment of chipmunks a bit sick. Like you I shuddered when I read that part. I feed birds and if squirrels and chipmunks get in in it, fine. I'm looking forward to hearing from you again on "Following Atticus" and reading posts from your journeys across the country.

Anonymous said...

Year round, we put out suet, nyger, and bird seed. In the winter, we put out corn on the cob for the squirrels. My husband doesn't like me to fill the feeder because the deer empty it during the night, but they have to eat, also. Thanks for the respect you have for the animals.

corinne levesque said...

Very nice

Reggie said...

Tom, I hope you see this post-I have so enjoyed you and Atticus's journey over the years.
I wanted to share a very small children's book I just ran across. The title is Stickeen. It was written by John Muir. John Muir as you know was a Scottish-American naturalist, author, and environmental philosopher. He was the founder of the Sierra Club and The Audubon Society. This is a true story.

The gist of it is (as stated on the back cover) is as follows: Surrounded by deep canyons of ice, John Muir and a little black dog named Stickeen wonder-are they doomed?
How Muir and Stickern handle this challenge together and are changed by it, creates a classic story. Muir later wrote of this adventure, in Alaska in the summer of 1880, as "the most memorable of all my wild days."
The format of the book is paperback, approx 9x11. Aside from the cover it contains 32 pages. The ISBN is 0-439-08744-9. It was printed in 1999 Scholastic Inc. It was, "as retold by Donnell Rubay and Illustrated by Christopher Canyon..Your local library and/or Library system may have it or be able to get it. I am in Georgia and our public library system had it on circulation-I was pleasantly surprised!

Thanks again for sharing your adventures, My Atticus is a small Boston Terrier whose name is Amos!

karen koszuta said...

Keeping you in my prayers. The next few days will be very difficult, but please know how much you both are loved.

Lee Ann Martinez said...

Hi Tom and Atticus,

My husband and I just listened to your book on cd's on every commute back and forth from work. It made a miserable commute (Seattle has terrible traffic problems)so wonderful that we could hardly wait to get in the car! The fact that we have two mini schnauzers had something to do with it. My husband went to 7-11 four years ago and came back with the first one and we rescued the second from deplorable conditions. The fact that my Irish dad and several relatives took us every year hiking in either the Olympics or the Cascade Mountains, also helped me to understand your feelings about the love of wilderness. My dad sounds a lot like your dad in lots of ways. We absolutely loved your book and cried through the happy and sad parts equally! I am so happy to see that we can still follow you and dogs! You inspired us to attempt some hikes with our dogs this spring and summer. Any books or tips on hiking with dogs? A forever fan now, Lee Ann