The Squirrel Chronicles: Letters to the city

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™


Dear Jan,

This evening, when I pulled out of the driveway headed for the squirrel woods, my neighbor waved at me from his lawn tractor. It must be the third or fourth time he's cut grass since I last cut mine. Actually, he mows his lawn, and I cut grass. There's a distinction. I should offer him my grass to cut. No sense him mowing his when it doesn't require it since I don't cut mine when it does. He's a good sport, and he'd fake some amusement at the offer, but he wouldn't do it no matter how much he wanted to, or how much I begged him. A man's grass is the window through which he displays his worth as a community citizen, and for that reason every man is duty bound to make his own statement.

I have a self-propelled mower for turning up full throttle and running behind. It provides some justification for cutting the grass by offering a workout. Big Honda 17 hp motor, bigger than on the VW pickup I had back in the 60's. Don't need or have time for the workout when I am hunting hard, like now, and I'd bet a dollar that my neighbor would love to drop all convention and wheel across the road to my acreage on full throttle to set upon some real grass just to see how his mower stacks up against mine. He can't, though. It wouldn't be fair to the neighbors.

Not cutting the grass earned me two squirrels tonight, and the best hunting is still to come. My friend Tom Mussatto, who also hunts squirrels, tells me he hunts under a different urgency than I because he has no chickens to fall upon. I accuse him of indirectly chiding me for shooting poorly enough to require a chicken backup plan. But I've been doing well. If this keeps up, I may raise fewer broilers next Spring and pasture the remaining property.

When was the last time you ate squirrel, Jan? I bet not since boyhood, right? Damned shame. Squirrels are delectable, the best meat I have ever eaten, delicious beyond description. But why wouldn't they be? If you are what you eat, is there a sweeter, more flavorful nut for eating than a shagbark hickory nut, the squirrel's favorite fare? Can you imagine what venison would taste like if those creatures found a way to eat hickories?

I usually gather several gallons of hickories each Fall before they frost, and have devised a mechanical contraption for busting through their shells, one that does not scatter or crush them when they explode as from a heavy blow. Sometimes it pops them into neat quarters and I can extract the meats with a sharp pick. They require drying for about a month or so, whereupon they reach peak flavor. They are to pecans, their domestic cousin, what morels are to store-bought button mushrooms. You don't have morels in California, though, do you?

Sometimes a little white grub will invade a crop, attacking one tree more than its neighbors. Squirrels avoid those trees, so it's always a good bet to start your search under trees that show cuttings strewn about. Better yet, do the squirrel taste-test yourself and sample from different trees. Some hickories are thicker shelled than others, some have a preponderance of dried-up meats, and some are really, really good.

But even with a taste-test these insidious little grubs will show up sometimes in one fourth of your nuts. They must get laid as eggs in the Spring nut buds. I think that's what squirrels smell for when they ferret out a nut. The size and appearance of small waxworms, these fellas eat their way out, boring a neat round hole through the shell after they have excavated the meat. There's usually a handful of them in the bottom of my nut bucket by the time the ponds have frozen, and I've thought about taking them to use as bait for bluegills, but never done it. I could parlay them into something delectable in the process. What a circle that would be: squirrels, hickories and panfish, with me standing in the middle!

Squirrels eat the best food and they also have the most fun. No animal excels them in either department. Have you ever paid attention to squirrel travel? I've referred to it before as a circus high wire act in clown shoes, and that's accurate if you can also imagine that these impromptu clowns are laying down the wire as they go, writing the script as they live it. If Euclidean geometry required squirrel brains to codify its theorems and corollaries, then we'd be measuring the distance between point A and point B by skill level, risk and adventure, never by the shortest distance. Which way would you prefer to measure, or travel? Or think? Or live?

Jan, I suspect a causal relationship between their love for hickory nuts and their enjoyment of this planet. It can't be coincidence that they eat the tastiest food and also have the most fun. I suspect this corollary, too: the archers who hunt and eat squirrels have more fun and enjoyment than all the other archers, who, because they are hunters, have it over the whole rest of humanity. It corresponds with my experiences and observations, and it also makes perfect sense based upon the you-are-what-you-eat principle. But then I am squirrel brained, of the diet-derived variety, and could never be comfortable with textbook geometry regardless of how it was fed.

Much love. Shall I overnight you some frozen squirrel? Or do you just want a quart of hickories to shell?