The Wisdom of Squirrels
I recently read that Native Americans learned about the magical sweetness of maple sap by watching squirrels. Apparently, squirrels like sugary stuff just as much as humans do. In the late winter, when most other food sources are getting scarce and starvation is lurking, squirrels climb to the tips of maple branches and nibble on twigs. If the weather is right—sunny and about forty degrees—the tree bleeds profusely, causing a clear mineral and calorie-rich sap to drip down from the twig. But the squirrel doesn’t drink the sap yet. Instead, it waits for a night. As the temperature dips below freezing, the dripping sap forms an icicle, and in the morning the sugar is concentrated in the tip of the icicle, which the squirrel delicately breaks off and eats.
Not only squirrels, but chickadees, a number of forest insects, and yes, cold, hungry, Native American foragers know the value of this incredibly nutritious substance. With our clever hands and powerful friend, fire, we’ve been able to take the sipping of maple sap a step further, boiling down the sap into that truly wonderful substance, syrup. Being lucky enough to live in maple syrup country, I have both tasted the elusive sweetness of the sapsicle and the rich mouthwatering goodness of full-on smoky hand-boiled syrup. I am deeply impressed by the wisdom of squirrels and of the humans who were so attuned to their surroundings that they noticed squirrels only ate icicles off of certain trees in the springtime.
Why can’t I do that? How is it that we have so deeply and fully lost our connection with nature that so few of us even notice squirrels? We view them as an occasional pest, stealing from bird feeders, or look at them as a cute bushy-tailed rat eating out of park trash cans. (Does that mean that park trash cans also contain previously unknown ambrosial substances?) When was the last time I watched an animal or a plant and learned something that would help me survive? Once I realized this, I set a goal for myself to learn more about the animals and plants that make their homes near mine.
It might seem that I don’t need this keen awareness. Come a cold February, I am cozy in my climate-controlled home, wrapped in nylon blankets, eating popcorn, fresh fruit, chicken, french fries and whatever the heck else I want. And if it snows, I can just laugh—because I don’t have to go outside unless I want to.
So maybe I don’t need to watch what the squirrels eat. Maybe I can live in my little warm bubble, eating foods that have been flown to my house from California, or Peru, or China, and count myself lucky.
I’m not going to go into the health benefits of immersing oneself in nature. Or how our health can negatively be impacted when we lock ourselves up inside and eat packaged foods that have traveled from a place that’s already a season ahead of us. Or the harm to the planet if we keep guzzling energy and resources at our current rate. Enough has been said and written on these topics already. I am interested in something else. Something more. I go outside. I garden. I hike, sit under trees, and eat food pulled from my own soil. I compost, plan my purchases consciously, recycle, conserve energy and water. I vote. I do the right things. But I don’t know what the squirrels in my backyard are doing (when they’re not running frantically away from my cats.)
Plus, it turns out there’s another part to the maple syrup story. There’s a tale told among some native nations that describes how in the beginning the sap that came out of the trees was already a thick syrup. The people didn’t have to do any work, they just drank it straight from the tree trunks. Eventually they got lazy and took as much syrup as they wanted and didn’t bother tending to their gardens or fishnets or even their children. When Nanabohzo, the First Man, came along, he was angered by their lazy ungrateful ways and diluted the sap, so that the people would have to work hard for their syrup. He reminded the nations that it took hard work, gratitude, and respect for the trees to earn the bounty of syrup the maples could provide.
When I dig potatoes, or pick wild berries, or even harvest sap from my own trees, am I showing the plants and the earth enough respect? Am I showing gratitude? Do I take only what I need and leave the rest? There’s a piece here that’s missing from the popular literature on sustainability or connecting to nature. We can use nature in a sustainable manner and still be using her blindly—without respect or gratitude. If I conserve water but never stop to feel grateful that I have clean water to drink, or never stop to think how I could help keep my water healthy and pure for all the living creatures that rely on it, how is that sustainable?
What I seek is a true connection with the earth. I want to remember my place in the web of life, to feel it in my bones; I am a part of life. I am a small, often unwise, often careless part of a huge web that is all that keeps me alive. The Native Americans believe that humans are the younger brothers, here to learn from nature. Christianity believes that we are the chosen creature of God, here to care for nature. I believe that no matter how deeply we care, we are so clueless, we could never possibly hope to care for nature as she needs us to. Besides, that would be like a baby caring for her mother. The baby doesn’t have the knowledge or ability to do so, nor does the mother need the care. We have it all backward. Mother Earth cares for us. In fact, she does so even when we are ungrateful and actively harm her. It’s hard to express the level of connection I believe we need to achieve. But we’ll know we’ve reached it when we can all say exactly what it is the squirrels do with their free time. (And exactly what it is they’re finding in those trash cans.)
Walker Powell is a writer, wife, mother, gardener, and hugger of trees, who lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, two boys, two cats, two rabbits, and more ducks and chickens than she really needs. She is always seeking ways to further her own learning and growth, and loves to share what she’s learned with her children, although they are often her greatest teachers.