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
My name? Sorry. Got carried away. Just call me River Warden, why don't
you? It's really Lady River WardenI'm the dowager dutchess
on my stretch of the 'Flow, you seebut 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
applehow 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
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 fatthere'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
squirrelsif 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
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
foodif we're robbed for instance, or if we're flooded outwe
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
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 propertypractically on my doorstep, in
factcollecting 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
You better believe I let him know he was trespassing. I mean, I don't
begrudge the creature some dry grass for his bedmuskrat nests are
awfully damp and uncomfortablebut 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
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 longmost are struck by cars or
caught in traps or eaten by coyotes in a matter of daysbut 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 Tamiashe doesn't understand much, to be sure, though she
really does trybut 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
springand best of luck!
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights