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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Voices from the Wild

The River Warden Speaks Her Mind

By Tamia Nelson

A Note to the Reader

Red squirrels have already had their say on these pages, in the person of the irrepressible Ratatosk, but a chance encounter on the margin of the 'Flow reminded me that other voices deserve to be heard, too. So I handed my keyboard over to an old friend for the day. (That's one of the good things about a laptop: you can take it almost anywhere.) Here's what she had to say.

November 20, 2001

Squirrels! To hear them tell it, they're the only rodents worth listening to. Fiddlesticks! What about us chipmunks? We're the prudent, hardworking ones, after all. Model capitalists, really. While the Red Guard are sitting up in the pines complaining about the unfairness of it all, we're scrambling to put food away for the future. We've got our feet on the ground. Not like some I could mention.

My name? Sorry. Got carried away. Just call me River Warden, why don't you? It's really Lady River Warden—I'm the dowager dutchess on my stretch of the 'Flow, you see—but I don't normally stand on ceremony. Besides, eastern chipmunks are an American species. Titles and all that goes along with them are foreign to our nature.

What's that? You say you've seen chipmunks lots of times before, and you don't see what's so special about us? Cute, yes. But not special.

That's exactly the point, though, isn't it? We live everywhere. In rock walls. Hedgerows. Woodlots. Campsites. Even suburban backyards. And that's what makes us special. We're adaptable. After all, we've been around for more than 25 million years. There's success for you!

This bothers some humans, I know. If you'll pardon me for saying so, you don't like it when other animals are too successful, do you? Some of you even call us pests. Pests! Let's get something straight right now, shall we? We chipmunks have been around a lot longer than you humans. We're not planning to go anywhere, either. To be frank, we sometimes say that you're the pests. When I think of all the millions of our homes you've bulldozed to make room for shopping malls and parking lots, I can get pretty angry.

But there's no point in dwelling on the past, is there? You humans are really doing quite well for johnny-come-latelys, and I'm sure we'll learn to get along with each other. After all, we have a lot in common. We're both entrepreneurs, for one thing. We see an opportunity and we make the most of it. You've probably heard the story about Isaac Newton and the apple—how he's supposed to have got the idea for the universal law of gravitation by seeing an apple fall from the tree. Well, I think Adam Smith might have been inspired to write the Wealth of Nations by hearing stories about chipmunks in the American colonies.

You're not convinced? I could be wrong, I suppose. Still, it makes a good story. And we chipmunks are quintessential capitalists. The acquisition of wealth is the organizing theme of our lives. Of course, wealth means something different to us than it does to you. But the principle's the same, and we've evolved a two-point philosophy to back it up. Call it the Chipmunk Way.

Philosophy? It's not as bad as it sounds. After all, we chipmunks are a pragmatic race. We don't have time for woolly theorizing. And the two points of our philosophy? They couldn't be simpler. Here they are:

Seize the Day!


Live Free or Die!

I told you we had a lot in common with you humans. Let's take a closer look.

Seize the Day! Humans didn't invent boom and bust, you know. We chipmunks have been riding that roller-coaster for every one of our 25 million years. Some years are fat—there's a bumper crop of nuts and seeds. Other years are lean. There's hardly a crumb of food to be found anywhere. This year has been that sort, at least in the northern Adirondacks. A real bust. But am I worried? No way. Last year was a boom year. There were beech nuts and maple keys everywhere. So I seized the day. In short, I stocked up, filling my underground pantry with all sorts of good things to eat. Now, even at the very end of a very lean year, with the Big Sleep just ahead of me, I've got food to spare. Obvious? Maybe. But from what I've seen of Tamia and Farwell's pantry, you humans could learn a thing or two from us.

Big deal, you say? Lots of animals store food, right? Right. Even red squirrels—if you've ever wondered what "squirrelly means, just look at a red squirrel!—store maple keys in shallow hides in the ground. And Ratatosk also stores pine nuts in the ends of MY canoe. (I don't mind, really. She's only a squirrel, poor thing.)

OK. Squirrels store food. But so what? Ratatosk can carry only one seed or nut at a time. No cheek pouches, you see. Talk about inefficient!

Chipmunks, on the other hand, can carry a whole load. I can carry six hazelnuts in one go, for example. Cheek pouches. Yep. They're a big reason for our success. Think of them as portage packs. The more food you can carry in each trip, the fewer trips you have to make. That's as true for chipmunks as it is for canoeists. Seize the day!

Of course, storage is important, too. Squirrels rely mostly on food pits and surface caches, but we chipmunks can do better than that. We live in underground burrows, after all, and they're not just holes in the ground. Oh, no. They're climate-controlled complexes of tunnels and chambers, each one serving a particular purpose. Some are pantries. Some are living areas. And some are…well…toilets. "A place for everything, and everything in its place." A chipmunk could have written that. You wouldn't store food in your bathroom, would you? I didn't think so. Neither would we. We're far too fastidious. We even change our bedding regularly, replacing old matted leaves with fresh, clean, springy ones. I really don't want to offend anyone, but from what I've seen of human housekeeping, it leaves a lot to be desired.

We're careful where we build our homes, too. We give a great deal of thought to site selection. After all, a chipmunk's home isn't just a place to sleep. It's her pantry as well. If we ever lose all our food—if we're robbed for instance, or if we're flooded out—we have to start all over again. And that wouldn't be good, would it? Particularly if it happened in one of the "bust" years.

It's like your real estate salespeople say: location, location, location. Take my home, for example. When I started it, I dug down under an old poplar stump that always sprouts delicious fungi in fall. It's like having a kitchen garden. My front door is still right in the base of the rotting stump, but even if I pointed it out to you, you'd have to look hard to see it. And that's the whole idea. No chipmunk likes to be seen entering and leaving her home. We don't have anything to hide, mind you, but we like our privacy.

I also have several emergency exits that I plug with loose earth and leaves. No chipmunk would live in a burrow without a back door. There are too many weasels in the world! And while it's important to seize the day, it's foolish to ignore danger. We chipmunks were employing cost-benefit analysis long before human planners got the idea.

So much for the first point of our philosophy. On to point two.

Live free or die! Not many human biologists study chipmunks. That's fine by us, too. Who wants to be trapped, stuck with needles, and fitted with a radio-collar, anyway? If the biologists think its so much fun, why don't they do it to each other? Still, there are chipmunks almost everywhere in North America. Most people have watched us from time to time, and some of you have even written books about us. One in particular stands out. It's called Eastern Chipmunks: Secrets of Their Solitary Lives, and it's by Dr. Lawrence Wishner. It's a very good book indeed. Wishner almost thinks like a chipmunk at times. Still, he gets a few things wrong. For example, he describes us "a community of the self-absorbed." That's true enough, but it's only half-true. We are independent creatures, and we mostly live alone. But we work together, too. We want to continue to live free, you see. Dying isn't part of our game plan.

Take me, for example. Like almost all adult chipmunks, I live by myself. I take responsibility for my own actions, and I look after my own affairs. But just because I'm a rugged individualist doesn't mean I don't know how to get along with other chipmunks. It's like the poet Robert Frost said: "Good fences make good neighbors." Now we chipmunks don't need fences. We're beyond that. But we do have clearly-demarcated property lines, and we respect them. Where you see only a woodlot or a lawn, we see map covered with individual territories.

How do we see so much in places where you see so little? Part of it is just patient exploration. Each chipmunk knows every hummock, log, and leaf on her land. And once we've mapped the boundaries of our property, we tell the world about it. Surprised? You really didn't think you were the only creatures with a language, did you? You're not, you know. The "chip" that gave us our human name is one element in a complex system of tonal speech, and we're very good at non-verbal communication, too. We're never at a loss for words. We can post notices of claim, warn off trespassers, and alert other chipmunks to approaching predators, all with a "chip."

True, we do have some difficulties from time to time in getting others to understand us. You humans are the worst, I'm afraid. Tone deaf. Almost clueless. But we have problems with other rodents, too. Only a month ago I found a muskrat on my property—practically on my doorstep, in fact—collecting grass for his nest. Talk about cheek! Not so much as a by-your-leave. He just waddled up out of the water and started to cut my grass.

You better believe I let him know he was trespassing. I mean, I don't begrudge the creature some dry grass for his bed—muskrat nests are awfully damp and uncomfortable—but I do expect to be asked first. So I gave him a piece of my mind. But did it do any good? Not a bit. He kept stuffing grass in his mouth and paid no attention to me at all. He didn't even look up. I might as well have been talking to a human! Even Ratatosk understands more than that muskrat did, and she's a squirrel. Not exactly one of nature's brighter lights, if you know what I mean. Muskrats must be very dull indeed. I suppose it's the constant damp. It can't be healthy. Or maybe it's just the water in their ears.

Still, we chipmunks always understand each other, and that's the most important thing. When a hawk sails overhead, the first one of us to sight it gives the alarm. And the same thing happens when we see a feral cat stalking through the woods. The whole community is on the alert in an instant. And that's the other secret of our success. We live alone and we keep our invisible fences in good repair, but we still work together for the common good. Robert Frost was right. Good fences do make good neighbors.

Speaking of cats (and humans), I wish you took better care of your pets. Every fall, cats are dumped in the woods near my home by summer visitors who don't want to be bothered taking care of them through the winter. The cats usually don't last long—most are struck by cars or caught in traps or eaten by coyotes in a matter of days—but they're a nuisance while they last. And they suffer terribly, too. I won't waste any tears on a dead cat, you understand. One nearly killed my mother. But it's still seems like a shabby trick for humans to dump their family pets in the woods. I guess you could say it's my pet peeve.

There you have it. Seize the Day! Live Free or Die! It's the Chipmunk Way, and it's gotten us through 25 million years of ups and downs. And now, if you'll forgive me, I'm starting to feel a little drowsy. We've had unseasonably warm weather these last few weeks, and it was good to talk to Tamia—she doesn't understand much, to be sure, though she really does try—but now I'm going to turn in. It's time for the Big Sleep. I've never understood why humans insist on working right through the winter. It's so much easier to snuggle up in a warm place with plenty of food, and wait for milder weather to return. Safe and sensible. But try telling that to a human. They just won't listen. You'd almost think they were squirrels.

Well, each to her own. It would be a dull world if we all did things the same way, wouldn't it? So I'll say good-by now. See you in the spring—and best of luck!


Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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