Nature in our neighborhood (and falling from the trees)Korinthia Klein
People in cities often overlook the nature that exists in our own space. It’s regarded as decorative or something to tame, but not as real nature. A maple tree downtown seems somehow less authentic than the same tree would up in the north woods for some reason. I try not to look at the nature in our yard that way. I am constantly delighted and surprised by the animals and plants I see right here at home, and make a point of teaching what little I know to my kids about it whenever I can.
And when you pay attention there is a lot to see, even in the middle of Milwaukee. There is a fox that lives near my violin store, and I’ve seen it trotting down the street when it’s deserted early in the morning. (It was bigger than I’d pictured a real fox would be.) We have amazing numbers of seagulls in our area, but not too many pigeons. (Which is too bad, because I like pigeons.) We’ve smelled and occasionally seen skunks around. Raccoons and opossums are harder to spot, but they are here. There are deer, and Canada geese that seem to have forgotten how to migrate. In the pond in our park there are mallards and a blue heron from time to time.
On the tiny level there are insects and other arthropods. One of my brothers has a doctorate in entomology, so our family has a different relationship with the buggy side of things than most. It’s hard not to mentally apologize to Barrett when any of us kills an insect no matter how justified we feel in doing it at the time. (Although even Barrett has says we have every right to swat a mosquito.) When we find interesting insects outside that we can’t identify we try to get Barrett on Skype or at least email him a description. When my kids freak out about a spider in their room I usually say something along the lines of, “Oh no! You’re scaring it to death! That’s why it’s hiding up there!” and then they get very conflicted because they still don’t like it, but they feel protective of it as well. The truth is I have a bad reaction to spiders myself, but they don’t scare me they way they did before I went to India and had to use a squat toilet in the dark next to truly impressively huge spiders that stretched out bigger than my hands, so spiders here barely qualify as spiders anymore. But my gut reaction to most arachnids and insects is negative despite knowing better, and I’m trying hard to not pass that along to my kids. Barrett is right in his wonderment and enthusiasm for those tiny creatures, and I want my children to understand that, even if I have to feign at least a nonchalance to help the cause. So we pay attention to ants and inchworms, butterflies and lightning bugs and try to pay them the same respect we do the other animals in our neighborhood. We have a no bug stomping rule on our property. (Except for mosquitoes, which have tried to suck Mona completely dry this summer.)
One of the surprising differences in our lives that came with moving across the street is that we have much closer interaction with the animals in our neighborhood. I’d never noticed before that even though our old house had a few trees around it, none of them were on our actual property; they were all city trees set back past the sidewalk. Our new house has about a dozen trees all right up close, and it makes a difference in what we see when we look outside. The coolest thing we ever spotted from the old house was some kind of hawk in the tree outside my bedroom. Quinn was sitting next to me on the bed while I was on my computer, and he kept saying, “Mama, I see a bird.” I kept responding with essentially, “That’s nice, dear,” until I finally looked up and went, “Oh my god, you weren’t kidding, that’s a big bird!”
I called the girls in and I got this (not so great) photo and we all admired it for as long as it sat there (which was until Mona tried to open the window and scared it off by mistake). It reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when there was an owl hooting somewhere across the street and we spent a good hour or so hooting back at it as convincingly as we could.
Now the trees are so close we can see even small birds clearly. There are cardinals and robins and woodpeckers and finches and all kinds of things in our trees all the time. The girls know which birds make what call because they can see them when they sing. (Where have all the blue jays gone, though? When I was a kid they were common and I now don’t remember the last time I saw one. Did they get taken out by the west nile virus like a lot of the crows did? Maybe they just don’t have as many in Wisconsin as in Michigan. It’s sad sometimes what we take for granted. I would love for my kids to see blue jays.)
But the most entertaining occupants of our trees by far are the squirrels. The squirrels are hilarious. When our old garage was torn down it destroyed part of the path some of the squirrels were used to taking, and my neighbor told me she watched a group of four squirrels run across her garage, hop into the birch tree, and then the one in the lead went sailing toward where our garage used to be and it hit the ground with a startled splat. All the other squirrels stopped in their tracks, dumbfounded. For the rest of the day freaked out looking squirrels huddled on our garbage can (which was now the highest thing in our part of the alley) and looked at where the garage used to be. My kids kept calling to them across the caution tape that there would be a new garage soon.
And as much as I’d like to tell you the most memorable event for my children this summer was the return of their dad from the war (and it really was, if they really stopped to think about it I’m sure, and someday looking back it will be), they would likely tell you if you asked that it was the day the baby squirrels fell out of our tree. We have a framed picture of those squirrels in our living room now, because they want to relive that moment at every opportunity. I have to admit it was pretty cool.
A few weeks ago I came home from work and Ian said something to me about nature being sad and pointed out a tiny squirrel lying motionless in the grass with flies buzzing around it. There were at least two baby squirrels that had fallen out of one of the trees in front of our house and the kids were pretty upset about it. A big storm the night before had probably damaged their nest and the mother hadn’t found them. I decided nature might be cruel but I wasn’t, so I scooped up the one squirming around near the side of the house and had Ian dig out an old pet carrier from the basement for it. I looked it over for any sort of lice or wounds and didn’t see anything bad, so we put it on a towel in the carrier and the kids gathered around, thrilled to have a live baby squirrel in the house, and they started debating what to name it. I went back out to look at the one we assumed was dead on the front lawn, and it turned out the flies were just attracted to the fallen crabapples on the lawn and the squirrel was fine. I scooped it up and put him by his brother. I had the kids come out with me and check for any more, and we found one last baby squirrel squeaking in a clump of pine needles. Three baby squirrels. My kids could not have been more excited.
We called my brother who had recently tried to save a baby squirrel, and got advice from both him and the internet, and we were able to keep the squirrels warm and hydrated over night. I think after much back and forth my kids settled on the names ‘Tiny,’ ‘Tim,’ and ‘Tom.’ The problem was our little refugees from the trees were so, well, squirrelly, that it was impossible to keep them sorted out. Not that I cared about their names, but all their squirming around each other made feeding them tricky. I would pick up one and get it to drink for a few minutes, put it down and grab another, but then have no idea which of the two in the carrier I’d already fed. It was like watching a fuzzy shell game seeing them nose each other around, and it made perfect sense why they fell out of their nest. I would do seven feedings at a sitting in the hopes that each squirrel would have gotten something.
In the morning I gave each of the kids some time with Tiny, Tim, and Tom before we took them to the animal rescue people at the local humane society. The kids wanted so badly to keep them, and they were so funny and cute I was vaguely tempted myself, but it’s not legal, and it wasn’t in the best interest of the squirrels. Besides, I already have an idea of what it’s like to live with three squirrels, and three more would do me in.
A few years ago when Aden was five, Mona was three, and Quinn was just a toothless cutie in a stroller, we were at the Bronx zoo together. It’s an amazing place (if a bit tough on tiny legs), and I’ve always been particularly fond of the rain forest exhibit where you can get close enough to the panthers to see their black on black spots. I was excited to be showing this wonderful place to my children, but the thing I remember best about that visit was that despite lions and tapirs and camels and chimpanzees, all my girls would get excited about were pigeons and squirrels. Every time they spotted a pigeon or a squirrel on the path they would exclaim in delight and rush at it and be sad when it ran for safety. It was baffling at the time, and cracked me up to no end, but I understand it now. There was no hope of real contact with the lions or the tapirs. They may as well have been on a television screen as far as my kids were concerned. But wild squirrels running free within arms reach? That was thrilling and real and worth exclaiming about. The possibility of touching something wild is like nothing else. I’m just as glad as they are that we got to hold those little squirrels. I’m proud of us for keeping them hydrated and getting them to a safe place.
One of the greatest gifts of being around small children is seeing things again through their eyes. It’s nice to be reminded to actually look at things like squirrels and find them fascinating and not just dismiss them as bushy tailed bits of scenery. My kids think seed pods are exciting, and cat tails are worth stopping the car for, and if they spot a fuzzy caterpillar that’s good for a whole day’s worth of activity following it around. But now in addition to just observing, my kids look up hopefully at our trees and think about what cute creatures might fall to earth and need our help. Once was enough for that particular experience, but if it happens again at least I’m sure we’ll know what to do, and that my kids are more than happy to help.