Per my usual habit after dinner, I went out to sit in the swing on the shed-roof front porch so I could try some new Toasted Cavendish tobacco in one of my favorite briarwood pipes. We forbid such activities indoors. No mind. I can always find entertainment from my reserved seat on the front porch – the porch swing.
When we built our log home on the banks of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Northern Wisconsin, we marked all the trees on our 1.5 acre lake lot so that the heavy machine operators, necessary to build a new home, would know not to remove or damage the trees. We’re tree-lovers. This part of the State is covered with 98% hard and soft maple, 1% basswood, and 1% white birch trees. We allow a ring of trees of grow within 20 feet of the house on all sides. The rest of the lot is forested all the way to the lake’s edge. And I mean forested! You can count the maples of all sizes in the millions. They grow like weeds here. We have a tiny area of grass-covered yard. We always wanted to live in the woods and that is what we have accomplished. I’m sure our neighbors think that we are a bit eccentric. The neighbor on the south is from Chicago and the one on the north is from Alaska. Go figure.
The summer’s entertainment had consisted of watching the bats that hang out under our porch shed-roof and the huge, colorful gypsy moths that are attracted to our porch lights. The bats put on quite a show as they swooped to and fro to consume as many mosquitoes as possible. The bats left suddenly for some reason. And after their departure, we also noticed that the pesky mosquitoes also disappeared. What bothered me about this was that the weather did not change. Rains remained consistent, thus providing breeding places for mosquitoes. The mosquito population did not change. Nothing changed. Both just left suddenly. Now I feel the need to find out why. I’m a sucker for research.
Back to the evening’s entertainment. As I sat on the porch swing enjoying the silent end to an August day and my pipe, I was distracted by the sound of debris, falling occasionally through the leaves of the trees directly in front of the porch. There was no wind or rain, although the sky was overcast and it had rained that day. I got out of the swing to get a look at the top of the trees beyond the shed-roof of the porch.
And there he was. A tiny red squirrel navigating from branch to branch and harvesting the seed pods of the maple trees. The seed pods of maple are often referred to as “helicopters” due to the whirling motion they make as they fall from the tree; a tiny seed with an over-sized, single helicopter blade attached. Two trees over, another red squirrel was also at work on those seed pods.
Now you might think that this is no big deal and that I should find more useful and interesting content for my posts. You would be correct. BUT, remember the adage, “Take time to stop and smell the roses along the path of life”? I often remind myself to do just that, as should you. So if you derive nothing else of value from this post, consider it a reminder to take a break from your chaotic life, find a comfortable chair, place it on your porch, and spend some time examining the content and substance of your environment that you pass by every day, but never notice.
You can learn a lot from the wildlife that share your living space. It is late August; the conclusion of the hottest Midwest summer on record. The time and method at which the red squirrels harvest the maple seeds can have a lot to say about what we can expect for winter in the upper Midwest. I’ve heard from hunters that the whitetail deer coats are especially heavy this year. My oldest son, who lives 200 miles south of here, saw a flock of geese flying south two weeks ago. That’s much too early. Signs of an early or severe winter? The wildlife are always aware of impending weather changes long before the long-range weather forecasters can give us their best guess.
As I puffed on my pipe and watched the two red squirrels drop what they didn’t want from the tops of the maple trees, I wondered why the empty seed pods were not whirling down to the ground as they always do. Instead they fell quickly and landed with a thud. So I got out of my porch swing again and took up a position below one of the squirrels so that I could see what it was discarding. They ignored me, which is the response that I expected.
It wasn’t long before seed debris began landing all around me. I picked up several items that the squirrels had discarded. They were seed pods alright, but they were empty. Two pods joined together at the seed tip, each with one helicopter wing per pod projecting out the backside of the pod. Besides being empty, the pods were green. The type that we see helicoptering or spinning slowly to the ground in fall are larger, single pods and dryed out to a tan color. That explained why these pods did not whirl slowly to the ground. A glance up into the tree at the squirrels convinced me that they were holding the seeds from the pods in their cheeks and discarding the chaff. But some of the double-pods still held a seed which told me that either they planned to retrieve these from the ground later or they were in a hurry to gather their food stores and didn’t have time to perfect the process.
They were assembling a cache of food that they would later hide for use over the long winter. How they remember where they put all this stuff has always been a mystery to me. But the fact that they were doing it in late August told me that the summer is truly over and it’s time for all mammals, including me, to make preparation for six months of Northern Wisconsin winter.
That thought was a rude awakening. Upon moving here I learned of two popular local axiom’s used to describe Northern Wisconsin weather. If you don’t like the weather here, just wait ten minutes. And the second axiom, Northern Wisconsin has two seasons – winter and July. So the end of summer is a big deal here. And that evening, those red squirrels were an early, painful, reminder that the “big deal” was about to happen.