Field Notes from — Nah, lets do squirrels instead

I’ve inadvertently fallen for my local squirrel community. This is a pretty common thing to do, I know.

On the west side of my house, I keep two huge, squirrel-proof feeders. The deck in summer is reserved for hummingbird feeders, so I can watch and photograph them from my kitchen window. In winter, I put up a seed feeder. It’s not squirrel proof. Which is how we got this scene in early January:


Matters progressed from there.


Being in a generally dark mood this winter, I couldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth and remove the feeder. So instead I opted to become a kind of Jane Goodall of squirrels, justifying my continued feeding of these rodents in the name of citizen science. I would learn about and report on the secret lives of urban squirrelry.

I don’t keep the feeder constantly full, because I’m mindful of my friends needing to find better suited food on the regular, and there are population issues to be considered. And also I just don’t want to have armies of squirrels on my deck at any given time. Conditions edged there one Saturday after a cold snap:


The outcome of this project has been that I’m now acquainted with individual squirrels and their temperaments, and in the larger community dynamics. My son and I have identified and named two of them, Slim and Stretch. Most of the squirrels that come to the feeder are female. (Another thing I’ve learned is that, when you see a male, it’s, uh, really obvious.) The ladies don’t tolerate much from the dudes. The last time I saw a male on the deck, Stretch casually shoved him into the birdbath.

The daily schedule works well for all parties. Chickadees, which lose up to 15% of their body weight on a winter night and need to get to the buffet pronto in the morning, arrive before dawn. House finches and juncos show up next. Squirrels mostly sleep in till well after dawn,  spend the hours of 9 to 1 plying the feeder, then leave. The birds come back after that.

Squirrel gestation season, I’ve learned, is right now. Young squirrels stay in the nest till they are ready to follow their mothers around and learn the drill. The timing here works well, because the seed feeder will make way for the hummingbird feeder in about eight weeks, so the young-uns won’t get a false education.

They can learn how to handle the seed feeder next winter on their own, like their mothers did. Walking seven miles through snow, barefoot and uphill. Literally.


Summer has left the building

Early-season snow near Eagle Creek park, Indianapolis

I wish I could tell you I’m one of those people who goes with the flow, who intuitively understands how to let go and ride the river, but I’m not. Too often I still find myself in a fight with the universe over the remote control of my life, and every time I lose.

As summer wanes, I grouse about winter. As winter melts into spring, I feel like I’m not quite ready to leave hibernation. What I can say is that the older I get, the more I learn, and the better I get at handing over the remote.

Winter is coming in forcefully this year. We’ve already had an early ice storm and, today, an early season snow. This morning I walked out in it, entered the stillness and the silence, and let the flakes land on my nose. I  walked through brown cornfields in the community garden, trying not to trip over the fallen stalks. I paid my respects to a deceased sunflower, its graceful curve still intact, snow gathering on the back of the long-gone blossom.

And then I went back to where it’s warm, having completed my small act of hospitality to the inevitable. Getting better all the time.

The snapping turtles of ecstatic experience

My young neighbor is fond of playing in the narrow seasonal creek that bisects my property and his parents’. At any given time of day I might look out from my writing perch in my sunroom and see him crouched over, examining a dead fish, fistful of mud, or any number of objects from the creek that make the mother in me want to insist that he wash his hands immediately.

However, my inner kid is apparently as strong as my inner mom, because I can do nothing but approve of this behavior — so much that last week I found myself by the creek with him, along with my husband and son, after he’d found two baby snapping turtle hatchlings.


I have to admit I was very impressed with this find. I went to work on documenting it immediately, before encouraging him to release his new friends back into the wild to enjoy their natural lives.  And as I edited the photos, I realized that the creek sessions that have been unfolding beyond my writing perch are live-action ecstatic experiences of childhood.

Ecstatic childhood memory is a concept I’ve been fixated on since I first encountered it several years ago in a piece by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. The idea is this: children lose themselves in particular places in the natural world, either places their families literally own or the children can feel some kind of ownership of, such as public lands. And as they play, fondling dead fish and whatnot, their child’s sense of wonder starts to wire memories into their brains — ecstatic memories. Chawla characterizes these ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels” that continue to fuel creativity for the rest of their lives.


It’s lovely to get to watch it happening just beyond my window.




After spending a week in Santa Fe, we drove south to White Sands National Monument before heading home. I’m a fan of strange landscapes, and White Sands has been calling my name for some time.

The national monument is a collection of gypsum sand dunes corralled in a mountain-ringed basin. The alkali flats are a vast, sixteen-by-nine mile sea of white sand, some of it very soft, and some of it crisped by the wind. Gypsum is highly soluble in water, and so rarely organizes itself into dunes. But in the contained Tularosa basin, when rain falls, it simply turns the gypsum into crystals, and the wind turns it into sand, forming dunes.

We arrived at White Sands on a still, windless day, and a dense silence prevailed out on the dunes. You could see other people on distant mounds, but could hear nothing more than your feet on the sand. It was as if the sand caught all sound and swamped it, as it does everything else.

The sky that afternoon was overcast, and at times foreboding. The temperature was about 50 degrees, which created a delightfully discordant feeling; after all, when everything around you is white, you expect it to be cold. This created a sense that I was living in a kind of hologram.

I started to feel better out on the dunes. The weight of death, sadness, and loss shifted a little, and I’m still not sure why. But I do know that the thickness of the quiet felt like the first time the universe had acknowledged the people it had swallowed up. Loss can feel like gaslighting at times. The author Elizabeth Lesser wrote that when someone close to you dies, it feels as though a hole opened up in the universe, swallowed your person, and stitched itself closed again without a trace. The world carries on as if nothing happened. Those who remain behind are left to reconcile an egregious personal loss with a world around them that doesn’t see it.

For some reason, the dunes, with all their silent drama, felt like a place willing to admit the seriousness of all this.

From there, we went to a New Mexican restaurant in Tularosa, where the enchiladas were plentiful and the red sauce cauterized my tongue. That same day, I began to feel what would be ten days of a feisty flu gathering in my bones, an illness that would remind me that I am still a live organism, still in the world, still — as my doctor said this week — “on the right side of the dirt.”

I’m still not sure which is the right side of the dirt, though. Or sand.

But that feels more okay than it did before.



Setting of the supermoon

The week after Christmas, we drove out to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We went to see my husband’s family, including my sister-in-law, whose partner died during Thanksgiving week. Mary was a small, compact woman with a much larger spirit, and her absence was palpable from the moment we walked in the door.

The deaths and illnesses of people close to me this year has left me sad, reflective, and a bit depressed. My photography has suffered. I even forgot my tripod on this trip.

My father-in-law, though, ever resourceful, called a photographer friend of his and asked if he had a spare to lend me, and he said that he did. When we went over to get it, I said “Thank you. I’ve never done this before.”

He cocked his head, confused. “This is the first time you’ve used a tripod?” He’d been told I was an experienced photographer.

“Oh, no,” I laughed. “It’s the first time I’ve forgotten mine.”

One morning, early, I looked out the window and saw the supermoon setting over the mountains in a sky with strange, golden morning light. I grabbed my gear without thinking, and my father-in-law came behind me with the tripod. Although the afternoon temperatures in Santa Fe reached the 50’s that week, the dry air has nothing to hold the warmth after sundown. The air that morning was piercing.

I shot it with the wrong lens, but it’s a start. Maybe my head will come back together eventually.