FROM THE ARCHIVE: These days the newspaper arrives before the sun does in the morning, and the vales emerge from their fog-bank covers long after everybody else is up and at ‘em. And somehow, this annual tilt by our world toward darkness has tripped a switch deep in my amygdala, the brain’s seat of emotions, memories, and fear, creating an intense urge to replace the wicker on our back porch with cordwood.
Kate and I have already made three trips to Blue Jay Orchards for cider and doughnuts and have begun to stack books on the coffee table for those long winter nights. The chimneys are clean and a few sweaters have emerged from an attic chest smelling of cedar. It’s time.
Most of the wood I will need this winter is stacked outside, seasoned for 18 months or more, ready and waiting to give up all that solar energy stored in cellulose for the sake of our cozy comfort through the months of cold and darkness.
While we are just beginning to think about hauling our hoard of wood under the cover of the porch, not 20 feet away from the woodpile a family of red squirrels, amygdalas aglow, are hauling hundreds of pinecones into a protected cache in the brush pile.
Two weeks ago, as I walked in the dark to retrieve the newspaper before breakfast, the morning stillness was punctured by the percussive plunks of pinecones hitting the pine needle mat beneath a stand of Norway spruce trees at the back of the yard. I had noticed the cones hanging in the tops of the trees like bunches of bananas, and they do fall of their own accord now and then. But when they come down as if from B-52 bombers, it’s a sign that the red squirrels are at work.
Unlike the gray squirrels, which lumber around the yard plotting their numbskull assaults on the bird feeders, red squirrels are small and quick and rarely come down out of the trees, making them less susceptible to predation by the hawks and coyotes that patrol the neighborhood. Occasionally you catch a glimpse of them, gliding effortlessly in what seems a separate gravitational field, where up is as easy as down. And as soon as you see them, they are gone, discorporating into the evergreen shadows.
Red squirrels love pine seeds, which are bound up tightly in the new green cones. To get at the seeds, they strip scales off the cones as if they were eating corn on the cob, row by row. At the base of every spruce tree in my yard is a growing pile of cone scales. The squirrels eat while they work on their hoard, the same way I do when I pick berries. They don’t stop for long; they have a lot of work to do before winter sets in.
I’ve read that a single red squirrel can eat its way through 40,000 pinecones in a year. The new cones are tightly wrapped, sealing in the seeds and keeping them fresh for months, making them the perfect item for the winter larder. With such big appetites, the little red squirrels will lay away thousands of cones in various caches. Our brush pile is already loaded with them. The approaches to some of the squirrel-sized openings in the heap are paved with pinecones.
I just hope the squirrels don’t set their sights on our porch before we can get the wood stacked. They work so much faster than we do — fewer diversions, I suppose. They don’t knock off for cider and doughnuts and an afternoon read.