by Carolyn Bennett
The robbers didn’t wear masks during the raid. They had to carry away the loot in their mouths because they needed all four feet to make their escape. Without arms, they still managed to strip every single fruit from my beloved apricot tree overnight.
The evening before, while tucking my garden in, I had made a mental note to come out the next morning and pick the ripening apricots which were just beginning to blush into velvety golden orbs. The fruitless branches which greeted me in the morning at first confused me. I wasn’t sure what had happened. A sneaky neighbor who thought I was away? Deer? Nope, too high for them. Birds? Nope, they’re peckers, not pickers. The only other possibility – the damn squirrels.
I didn’t really want to blame them at first. I grew up loving squirrels. They were the wildest creatures in our very unwild Chicago suburb. They were my daily entertainment before the days of Instagram and Snapchat. For hours I’d watch them scamper up and down our maple tree, chase each other in circles around our back yard taunting our confused beagle, and inflate their balloon-like cheeks with fallen acorns until they found the perfect burial ground for their winter’s cache.
My robbers were their distant cousins, California ground squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi) named for Frederick William Beechey, a British Royal Navy Captain, who, in the early 1800s, explored the California coastline. And whom, I believe, might not have been too pleased to have his name permanently attached to what I have come to see as pesky pernicious orchard raiders.
Smaller than their grey tree-nesting relatives, these foot and a half long critters live in vast underground burrows with extensive tunnels and numerous entrances and exits. Their gray, light brown and dusky fur is mixed giving them a mottled appearance. A band of slightly darker fur, flecked with light gray, extends from the head over the middle of the back draped with a grey cape over the shoulders. This gray cape has an additional function. It breaks up the animal’s body outline and makes it even more difficult for a farming neophyte (like me) to spot them against the western chaparral.
Theoretically, I shouldn’t be bothered by them. Their diet, according to wildlife guidebooks, would have them, if competing on television’s Top Chef, preparing appetizers of nuts, seeds and maybe some crispy grasshoppers, beetles or crickets. A salad of nightshade, jimson weed, mallow and poison oak might follow. The main course could include quail eggs, or ground nesting birds with a side of mushrooms, roots or bulbs. The meal would probably be capped off with a dessert of manzanita berries, gooseberries or prickly pear fruit.
Unfortunately, the guidebooks are wrong. I knew that the moment I spotted them jumping out of my persimmon trees with unripe Fuyus exploding from their mouths. I knew it when I saw them dashing across my little field with cheeks jam-packed with my pre-jammed plums. And I knew it when I was face to face with my naked apricot tree.
It didn’t take long after buying our farm north of Los Angeles that I began to understand what I was in for. Just a few weeks into becoming a late-in-life farmer, I picked up a worker from a neighboring Pixie tangerine farm to help me on his day off. He spoke no English, so his boss explained the deal before we took off in my pickup. I needed to have him back by 4. He would bring his own lunch. I should provide water. And he would be allowed to keep anything he shot with the rifle lying across his lap in the front seat. What, I asked, might that be? Squirrels, of course. Of course. I was glad he didn’t bag anything that day, as I didn’t relish the return trip sharing the front seat with a sack of dead rodents. Now, in hindsight, I wish he had.
I’ve gone from having happy memories of quirky circus squirrels to seeing them as voracious varmits. I’m not alone. Dinner parties and potlucks among friends and fellow farmers don’t break up without a discussion of eradication techniques. I’ve tried everything from shooting them with a bb gun rifle from my front porch (I’m a terrible shot) to baiting (not eco-friendly), to renting a “Gophinator” to blow up their dens (dangerous during fire season).
And then I got lucky. Heading into town a few months ago, a damn squirrel scampered out into the road right in front of me. I didn’t have time to swerve. Ba-bump! I must have run over it. Sure enough, from my rear view mirror there it was lying inert in the middle of the road and all I could think of was, YES! One fewer fruit looter. And didn’t think about it again.
That is, until few weeks later. I was once again heading into town. I spotted a furry grey lump in the middle of the asphalt. Great, I thought again. Another one bites the dust. As I got closer I noticed off to the side, a damn squirrel, sitting straight up, motionless. His mini arms were hanging down across his chest, paws resting one upon the other. He was staring at the furry grey lump. What, I wondered, was going through his mind? Was it his mother? Was he waiting for her to join him? Did he understand what had happened?
He remained motionless, diminishing in my rear view mirror as I continued down the road, but not diminishing in my mind. For a fleeting moment, he wasn’t a thief and I wasn’t his predator. He was just another creature on this earth we share, trying to make sense of something he probably couldn’t make sense of. Not unlike the rest of us.
Carolyn Bennett is a gardener, writer and lecturer who splits her time keeping her fingernails dirty on her farm in Ojai and here in Hancock Park.
Well, in all our yards the “robbers” are squirrels, possum, raccoons, and roof rats. Fruit does not seem to survive….Running over anything, even by accident, and killing it would hurt my soul terribly for a long time. I think you realized it hurt yours too.