The Squirrel Chronicles: Letters to the city

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™



Just back from a trip to the hills of Belmont County. Mary and I went down for the third Saturday in a row. She is sorting through papers and household goods at her parents' home in Shadyside, distributing valuables and mementoes to family and preparing the remainder for an auction. Her dad was 99 and life was not good for him these years since his stroke. Mary's sadness goes beyond his death, though. It has to do with a landscape missing her mother and three brothers as well. One of the boxes she packed last week contained half a dozen cakes of faded homemade lye soap.

I took bows and arrows and went squirrel hunting 10 miles down the river on her mother's old birth place, happy to be back in the hills again. Two weekends of helping her sort and pack were quite enough for me. Call me selfish, but I noticed that my father-in-law didn't even own a fishing pole. I have several, and aim to wear them out before I go.

This particular area along the Ohio River is called "Little Switzerland" after the community of Swiss immigrants that settled there and felt at home with the terrain. Powhattan Point. Dilles Bottom. Clarington. Remember these names? It was home to Mary's parents, their parents and their parents and their parents before them.

When her father's old homestead on German Ridge was still a working farm, I remember livestock water troughs tied off to fence posts to keep them from sliding down the hills. There is not a flat spot on the place, unless it was purchased with a pick and shovel. Prosperity was not an option there, regardless of one's work ethic. Once, during a drive to Columbus, my father-in-law surveyed the sweep of corn and bean fields left and right and wished softly that his forebears had continued west just another hundred miles into such flat and fertile country before setting roots. Focused upon duty and family, he stayed near his roots and toughed it out. I understood about him and fishing poles.

"As the crow flies" is a wry way of estimating distance here. It's a concept only, transportation by fantasy across the twisting, winding, vertical landscape. In some places you could piss from one ridge to the next if you could find a place to stand up. It's gray squirrel country. Big timber stretches for miles along ridges and down through hollows. A few fox squirrels hang around the edges, but mostly fidgety grays inhabit the deep timber. It's all been logged several times over, and much of the remaining growth is black locust, but a few islands of oaks, beeches, maples and hickories still feed a robust squirrel population. Deer and turkeys now, too.

The woods have overgrown. It's a familiar story all through this area. The deep shaft mines and the strip mines have played out (except for high-sulfur coal), the family farm no longer makes economic sense, and mostly just old folks remain in the hills, waiting in clapboard farm houses behind yellowed lace curtains, watching television. Cattle no longer keep the woods clean, and heavy logging has opened up the canopy enough that the understory is thick with head-high saplings, brush and briars.

Enough to make some people sad.

Not me. No sooner do people quit looting the land for coal, silting streams and turning them orange with mining sulfur than reclamation begins taking place. Let them go to the cities and suburbs and take their ledgers and stuffed lock boxes with them and let squirrels be the custodians of this new wilderness.

I've come to sharpen their senses, to slip and fall on steep game trails, break twigs, snag myself up in briars and bring home the squirrels that don't pay attention and flee.

Found two such squirrels Saturday morning, a gray and a fox. The gray was cutting pignuts, shaking upper limbs. I spied him almost as soon as I stepped into the woods. You hunt the ridges down, with the sun at your back. Thataway, even in tall timber, you aren't screwing your head off your shoulders craning to look up. He carried a nut half way down and set up to gnaw it. That was my chance. He came out dead from the concussion. If I'd missed, that arrow might still be flying down the hollow.

Never got up on anything else until very late in the morning. I'd been standing near a hickory maybe five minutes, watching it and listening to birds, when a squirrel materialized from its top and started heading toward me. Sometimes a tree sprouts a squirrel. Sometimes it just absorbs them, too.

I was screened pretty good and didn't move, but he saw me and started barking lightly. Best thing to do without a shot is to just hold still. Sometimes their aggravation emboldens them to come toward you.

This one did, barking harder, one tree over. I lost him in the foliage when he got between me and the sun even though I had on my sunglasses. I leaned back and forth several times to no avail, scanning to glimpse his tail jerking, focusing upon the source of his chatter. Every slight move I made set him off. Just didn't make sense that he could see me and I couldn't see him. Another ventriloquism situation. He was straight overhead rather than in the tree I was staring into, and when I finally figured it out he was only about 20 ft up and coming down the trunk after me. Shot him at 5 yards in self defense.

When you work that hard for two squirrels, which is not much more than a meal for two hungry people, you know you have earned your way in the world, and you carry them out with a great sense of satisfaction. I tied them off to my quiver and enjoyed a lazy walk back out, stump shooting along the way, jumping the same flock of turkeys that I'd watched feeding earlier that morning, even pausing to cradle myself into the base of a large, gnarly-rooted oak and close my eyes for a while. It was nice to be back in the hills.

When I drove back to Shadyside, Mary threw her arms around me and cried a little. I cried a little too.