Squirrel Talk

If we squirrels spoke human, we might have a lot to say. We chatter all the time, and if you don’t understand squirrelese, that’s your problem. But to foster interspecies communication, here are some possible interpretations of our profound thoughts.

“We squirrels are gourmands by nature. We love to eat. That’s a dilemma on a frigid January morning, when we might have to resort to stripping bark from trees to fill our tummies. So it comes as a very welcome surprise to receive donations from you kind two-legged creatures. We like sunflower seeds, and they sate our appetites for a while. Thank you kindly.”

Wenn wir Eichhörnchen die Menschensprache sprächen, hätten wir viel zu sagen. Wir schwatzen die ganze Zeit, und wenn Ihr uns nicht versteht, ist das Euer Problem. Aber um artenübergreifende Kommunikation zu fördern, gibt es hier einige mögliche Interpretationen unserer tiefgehenden Gedanken.

“Wir Eichhörnchen sind von Natur aus Feinschmecker. Wir lieben es, zu futtern. An einem kalten Januartag kann das zu einem Dilemma führen, wenn wir uns dazu herablassen müssen, unsere Bäuche mit trockener Baumrinde zu füllen. Deshalb akzeptieren wir liebend gerne eine kleine Gabe von Euch netten Zweibeinern. Wir mögen Sonnenblumenkörner, und sie stillen unseren Appetit eine Weile lang. Herzlichen Dank dafür”.

At times we, too, get in a slight huff.

“I found this peanut, and I dare you to try to get it back!”

“What are you looking at? Just because my coat is slightly darker, I am still a squirrel!”

Manchmal ereifern auch wir uns ein wenig.

“Ich habe diese Erdnuss gefunden. Untersteh Dich, sie mir wieder abzunehmen”!

“Was glotzt Du nur so blöd? Auch wenn mein Fell etwas dunkler ist, bin ich immer noch ein Eichhörnchen”!

Did we mention we were gourmands?

“I simply love baguette. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. I think it makes my tail look elegant and fluffy. Don’t you agree?”

Habe ich schon erwähnt, daß wir Feinschmecker sind?

“Ich liebe Baguette. Außen knusprig, innen weich. Ich bin davon überzeugt, daß es meinen Schwanz elegant und flauschig aussehen lässt. Stimmst Du mir nicht zu”?

At times we overindulge.

“I don’t feel so good. My tummy is sooo full. I think I am getting sick.”

Manchmal übertreiben wir es etwas.

“Mir geht es nicht so gut. Mein Bauch is sooo voll. Ich glaube mir wird schlecht”.

We are highly adaptable. We even use other creatures’ homes.

“I think I will go for a walk. Wait! Someone seems to be watching me. Better not leave the house yet. Maybe if I sit still and don’t move, she won’t see me.”

Wir sind sehr anpassungsfähig. Wir benutzen sogar die Wohnung anderer Wesen.

“Ich glaube, ich mache jetzt einen Spaziergang. Moment mal! Jemand scheint mich im Visier zu haben. Ich warte besser noch eine Weile. Vielleicht wird sie mich nicht sehen, wenn ich mich nicht bewege, sondern mich ganz ruhig verhalte”.

We know that rest and relaxation is good for our health.

“The unbearable lightness of being a squirrel.”

Wir wissen, daß Erholung und Entspannung gut für die Gesundheit ist.

“Die unerträgliche Leichtigkeit des Eichhörnchenseins”.

Aiken Canyon Preserve

About eighteen miles south of downtown Colorado Springs lies a unique sanctuary, designated as a nature preserve in 1993, when the Nature Conservancy signed a 99 year conservation lease for 1,100 acres of public land with the State of Colorado. The subsequent purchase of additional private land expanded the total acreage of Aiken Canyon Preserve to 1,600. It was named in honor of Charles Edward Howard Aiken (1850-1936), who grew up in Vermont and Chicago. After Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, he relocated to Colorado with his family, where they ran a sheep ranch a few miles south of the future preserve. Charles, a bird collector since a young age, had been apprenticed to a taxidermist in Chicago, and continued this profession in Colorado. As was common in the days before widespread photography and use of binoculars, the sad method to learn about birds was to shoot and stuff them. Aiken became a taxidermy expert and operated his own shop in Colorado Springs. He contributed greatly to the knowledge of the avifauna of Colorado, and through his travels, of neighboring states.

As Aiken Canyon’s water is supplied only by an intermittent creek, it never saw any significant settlement, logging or grazing, and still harbors an intact, original Rocky Mountain foothill ecosystem attractive to a varied fauna. Mammals include raccoons, black bears, deer, elk, and mountain lions, though I have only seen squirrels and rabbits during my repeated forays. At least 142 avian species have been documented, according to eBird. Bees and butterflies join the birds in the warmer months, as do other insects, lizards, and snakes. It was here that my husband and I had our encounter with a Prairie Rattlesnake, stretched out across the trail one July day. Luckily, it simply slithered across and curled up behind a rock for a siesta. We parted peacefully, but with an increased awareness on our part of the potential of reptilian appearances.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

In 1996 a field station was constructed, with walls fashioned out of a straw core, and a stucco surface the color of the surrounding soil. For two decades, volunteer staff provided information about the land, its history, and its denizens. Because of fungal contamination in the straw, it was torn down in the autumn of 2016, much to the chagrin of helpers and visitors alike. The space sat empty until the completion of a covered pavilion with picnic tables in the spring of 2018.

Access to this pristine parcel is afforded via an easy to moderate four mile trail that bars pets, bikes, and motorized vehicles. The first portion of the narrow path meanders through a grassy meadow and a dry creek bed that carries the warning to seek higher ground during flash floods. The greatest challenge is trying to decide whether to hike the steepening loop in a clockwise, or counterclockwise direction. There is much for the eye to gaze at. The red ground is littered with leaves, pine needles and cones, and sprinkled with cactus, yucca, and additional wildflowers. Scrub oak and mountain mahogany make up the tangled understory, medium-height junipers and pinyons are dwarfed by tall Ponderosa Pines. Islands of whimsical sandstone formations jut out of the verdant canopy and tickle one’s fancy. A short side trail leads to a promontory with views of the expansive plains in the east, the Wet Mountains in the west, and the Spanish Peaks in the south.

A three-quarter mile spur veers off the main loop and leads to the ruins of a log cabin that owed its existence to a local natural spring. The dwelling was likely built in the 1920s or 30s, but has long since collapsed. A seeming contradiction to the statement that the canyon was never settled, it left such a small footprint that it did not significantly change the geology or biology of its environment.

This site, surrounded by trees 50 feet tall, never fails to stimulate my imagination. Remnants of the wooden building, its metal roof and pipes lie scattered next to timeworn utensils – a tattered bedspring, threadbare shoe soles, glittering glass shards, rusting cans. Just beyond this former domicile, a tall rock provided the side wall of a small corral for domestic animals. Spikey leaves reminiscent of iris suggest the tender care of an erstwhile gardener. While I have never seen them in flower, my mind is tantalized by the potential and prospect of luminous blooms in this sheltered vale. Who once called this spot home, far away from town, with bears and mountain lions as neighbors, when the promise of colorful spring blossoms brightened the long, dark, cold winter nights?

A Late Summer Getaway

As we hoist our heavy packs onto our backs, the last vestiges of clouds dissipate. The sky gradually returns to its proverbial azure hue, after being obscured by smoke and haze. The presence or threat of wildfires in the American West, and the bans on open fires and flames that characterized much of our Colorado summer, have been lifted, and we jump at the chance to escape for a short stint. Rain at our planned destination delayed our departure by two days, but now we thank those showers for having cleared the air, and for having created the piney, fresh fragrance that envelops us in the forest.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

Our goal is to reach the Lakes of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. After driving 100 miles southwest from Colorado Springs, we reach our trail, where wind whooshes through conifer boughs, and aspen leaves dance in the breeze. Most are still green, but a few are turning, harbingers of approaching autumn. The rocky path takes us higher and higher, to three alpine lakes nestled in a wide mountain basin, at an elevation of approximately 11,600 feet. After five miles and roughly 2,500 elevation gain, we set up our tent.

     We have longed for Colorado’s tundra, famous for its wildflowers. Our years-long drought has lessened their bounty, and we are here late in the season, but some colorful blossoms still enliven the scenery. The lichens and shrubs that cling to the rocky slopes are already assuming their autumnal, rust-colored sheen, and drape the mountainsides in velveteen blankets.

Even though this is wilderness, animals are habituated to human visitors, as the lakes are popular not only among hikers, but also anglers. A female deer appears out of nowhere and munches grasses close to our tent, seemingly unafraid; a well-fed ground squirrel watches us filter water from a lake; chipmunks forage through our camp, in search of dropped morsels of food. We listen to the chatter of squirrels in the trees, and to the high-pitched calls of marmots and pikas in the surrounding rocky crags.

Few people have made the trek this week in late August, and the campsites are scattered enough to enjoy a sense of solitude. The languid hum of insects and the chirping of birds accompany us through the daytime and complement the constant background music provided by a waterfall cascading down a cliff face within earshot of our site. At night, we see the pinpricks of myriad stars, fewer when the moon vies for attention, more once it goes to sleep. Other than short excursions into our environs, we laze – read, write, follow the arc of the sun across the firmament. Stretched out on our backs we observe the celestial dance of the clouds: tendrils of vapor approaching, linking hands, letting go, drifting apart. Like high-altitude lizards we luxuriate in the warmth, and revel in the colors of late summer, grateful for glimpses of nature’s benevolent face.

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A Sea Of Smiling Suns

It is the time of year when my eyes espy yellow blossoms everywhere. They might have been here for a while, but as other blooms are fading and giving way to seed heads, sunflowers still shine. They seem to have served as solar collectors all summer long, and are now returning the stored sunshine as golden smiles. Enamored of their cheerful faces, I simply cannot pass them without pausing to take their portrait. I, in turn, leave a grateful nod and try to store their good cheer and brilliance for the coming days of waning warmth and brightness.

This is my quilt of thankfulness, dedicated to the ever-smiling sunflower.

Es ist die Jahreszeit, in der meine Blicke überall auf gelbe Blumen treffen. Sie mögen bereits eine Zeit lang da gewesen sein, doch während andere Blüten verblassen und ihre Fruchtstände entwickeln, glänzen die Sonnenblumen noch immer. Sie scheinen den ganzen Sommer lang als Solarkollektoren gedient zu haben, und geben jetzt die gespeicherten Sonnenstrahlen in Form eines goldenen Lächelns zurück. Verliebt in ihre fröhlichen Gesichter kann ich nicht einfach an ihnen vorbeilaufen, ohne ihr Porträt festzuhalten. Im Gegenzug nicke ich ihnen dankbar zu und versuche, ihre gute Laune und ihr Leuchten für die kommenden, weniger warmen und hellen Tage zu speichern.

Hier ist meine den immer lächelnden Sonnenblumen gewidmete Collage der Dankbarkeit.