do you have a couple of minutes? because this photo needs a little extra explanation. on one hand, this is the fur, probably tail fur, of an ordinary and very common eastern gray squirrel. on the other hand, it stands for one of those rare moments when several different parts of your life converge.
i had been reading the book “on looking: eleven walks with expert eyes” by alexandra horowitz. in the book, the author goes on a ramble about squirrels, how ubiquitous they are, how no one really knows much about them, how wildlife experts never do dissertations on squirrels. well, i live on a heavily wooded acre that is teeming with both gray and red squirrels. and as i read this passage, it occurred to me that i know nothing about these gregarious neighbors of mine, except that the ass-kicking little red squirrels can be maddeningly loud right around sunrise in the summer, when i sleep with open windows. it’s the classic case of not seeing what’s right in front of you. so as i read, i started feeling more and more sheepish about my lack of respect for these fellow residents of my tiny corner of the world. as part of her ramble, alexandra mentions that gray squirrels have two breeding seasons per year, and one of them starts on the winter solstice. this caught my attention, because here we were, only a few days past the solstice, and the squirrels had been especially active outside my bedroom window, but I had not put together: active squirrels = mating squirrels. that was my first ah-ha!
then a couple of days later, on the way up our driveway to pick up my son at school, i had to stop because a red-shouldered hawk was standing on something in the middle of the path, with no intention of taking flight. i waited pretty gladly, because a hawk close up is never something you complain about. the hawk was looking at me, looking at its feet, looking at me, looking at its feet, and finally it picked up a limp rag of gray fur and flew off. so, of course, i had to get out and inspect the remains. the hawk had clearly done swift and clean work in eviscerating the squirrel. there was almost no evidence of struggle or blood. just the cleanly removed entrails, and one small tuft of fur.
as i drove off to get my son at school, i had a second ah-ha: the squirrels are in mating season. they are careless and distracted (read: horny), like those poor desperate whitetail bucks in the rut. the hawk had landed on a male squirrel with something quite other than caution on his mind. it suddenly seemed fitting that the squirrel mating season conveniently arrives every year on or near the shortest day of the year, when the overwintering birds in our northern climates are most in need. a few more dots connected. a little bit of information and a little bit of guessing, and now i feel like a better neighbor.
tail fur of the eastern gray squirrel
my driveway, saint paul, minnesota
several stalks of this somberly festive garland decorated the edge of my walking path today–each about four or five feet tall, with beautiful dried tassels decorating their stalks. i can’t say exactly why, but they looked like the kind of weed that grows six feet in just one summer. in other words, not necessarily perennial residents of this particular spot, but nonetheless comfortable in their own skin. i spent considerable time today trying to identify the plant, and i am at a loss, but my gut tells me it is our old friend ragweed in winter disguise.
winter weed stalk (ragweed?)
rice creek regional trail, saint paul, minnesota
it is the intervertebral disc of a whitetail deer. the cushionlike pad between the vertebrae. we human animals have the same thing. when we “slip a disk” this is the pesky thing that bulges out and often puts pressure on a nearby nerve. the spinal cord runs up through the vertebra at the notch in the top of the heart shape. we found the spine of a whitetail deer beside my son’s soccer field this summer. the bones were picked clean, but mostly intact. i am guessing the work of coyotes. most of the vertebrae had these discs still attached. this one had fallen off. the heart shape was so striking, that my son pocketed it right off. today, i found it on his dresser, and have borrowed it to share with you.
whitetail deer intervertebral disc
found beside the soccer fields of chippewa middle school, shoreview, minnesota
the polar vortex has either spun out, or run down, or moved on, or whatever the meteorological term might be. in any case, the temps went from double digits below zero F yesterday, to double digits above today. i think we hit a balmy 17 degrees F (-8 C) this afternoon. tomorrow looks like mid-30s (0 C). this photo is from last june, and that’s because -8 C suddenly feels like summer.
assorted backyard (june) clippings
saint paul, minnesota
these are the stems of that monster of a plant, virginia stickweed, that i foolishly carried into my house a couple of weeks ago. many of the burrs are still waiting out this cold snap in my sock drawer. i had to trim off all the dangling chains of burrs just to get them contained enough so they wouldn’t end up in back in my hair, socks, sweater, and pants on their way back out the door. the remaining skeletons were so striking that they got to remain on my desk for a couple weeks awaiting their chance at a photo opp. here are their 15 minutes of fame.
virginia stickseed stems in winter
my driveway, saint paul, minnesota