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Squirrels

There are squirrels near downtown Duluth sitting cross-legged on alleyway tree limbs, picking their teeth with plastic shards carved out of trash bins.

There are squirrels in my neighborhood, Chester Park, who sit atop my garage roof and blithely stare below. Then they climb to the peak and play patty-cake.

I am seeing distinct packs of squirrels in the city as I walk from pocket to pocket. Those downtown squirrels are nothing to mess with. I imagine them waiting to pounce on any passive east side brethren that get lost and wind up sniffing around trash bins clearly marked for toughs. Each one has a squirrel-sized hole gnawed out of it. You don’t see that in the less dense, leafier neighborhoods.

And it’s not just the squirrels in alleyways from Fourth on down to Superior Street. Crows dive-bomb. Chipmunks clatter with menace. Skunk smells waft. Pigeons cluck disapprovingly. Even the flies are stickier.

Someone once told me, pretty convincingly at a party, that squirrels have definite territories and thus distinct personality traits. I’d look it up if I cared enough. If I cared whether the glad-handing squirrels in my hood would ever get into a bloody tussle with the teeth-pickers below.

No one believes me when I talk of the passivity of the squirrels in my back yard. They are persistent, yes, but only instinctively, I’m guessing. They will mind a dog patrol but only in climbing higher into a tree and still staring down on forbidden territory. Eventually, even with the dog in deep slumber bliss, they move on — perhaps to take a swim in the creek or to pick flowers in a meadow.

The fat and often greasy-looking squirrels near downtown are akin to the famous honey badger series on YouTube. They don’t give a shit. If I were to sit down long enough to observe them, I imagine a typical movie Mafioso street scene. Runners coming and going with new food source information. Bosses squeezing stress balls or slurping spaghetti out of a Styrofoam go-box. Little tiffs here and there, more of a slow dance among them to shake out the hierarchy.

Humans have helped create these packs, of course. College students are sloppy with garbage handling, bringing in the hyena-like hordes. Once established, I suppose everything in the garbage area becomes fair game, and thus the boring of holes in the mindfully enclosed bins.

You’d imagine some town-gown animosity brewing near these squirrel n’er-do-wells below me. But I suspect the “get off my lawn” guy hasn’t yet taken this correct lay of the land, that lazy (or naïve) human behavior feeds these squirrels’ egos. Maybe he rails every day inside his tidy home about those damn squirrels, not kids who toss pizza remnants and bagels onto the alley gravel. Old guy is in his basement drafting up deterrence plans, maybe collecting an arsenal. Try to convince the FBI that your stash was “for the squirrels.”

Which brings to mind a horrifying prospect brought up by a friend when I went on far too long about the squirrel sects. “What if, one day, the squirrels said ‘Fuck it,’ and were not going to be passive to humans any longer. Can you imagine? We’d be wiped out within a week.”

Well, we’d certainly better know the numbers surrounding us as a sharp-bone-wielding rodent took us at every street corner or those clean-toothed bandits downtown lurched toward our heads from telephone lines.

But would these bands unite into one force? I have to think negotiations would break down soon enough. The warhawks would grow tired of listening to the Chester Park lame-ohs who constantly carp about biting the hand that feeds them. “Look, no more gardens for us to plunder and, for you heathens, no one left to leave you the garbage you so crave. Sure, we’ll rule the world. And starve.”

“Bullocks,” the downtown cabal would retort, for some reason using a term from the old country. They would keep their nearsighted stance, not seeing the forest for the easy food.

Of course, instead of teaming up to wipe out us humans, there would be a squirrel civil war. Under the Eighth Street bridge we’d find Gettysburg. Antietam down in the hospital district. Vicksburg on the West End.

Who’s to know if my Chester Park squirrels would even join the fight. And if the fight came to them, perhaps Hermantown would be respite Canada — sticks on shoulders, tea bags filled with their belongings, trudging up Central Entrance.

Best to not think of such bloody scenarios, for us and for them. I’ll just bask in my luck that the nicer squirrels hang in my neighborhood. Could there be migration? Yes. We are seeing more pigeons cross the unofficial demarcation line set at Eighth Street, alighting on the squirrels’ play area on the garage and cooing on our dormers. I don’t like pigeons, and am curious why they suddenly like us.

As for the flightless rodents, we have no alley on our stretch of street, no collective cache of garbage bin leavings. I think we are safe, for now.

Still, I leave toothpicks at the base of our bins and copies of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” No gnawing, please. Move along.


Mike Creger was a squirrel in a past life, but lived in the country. He can be contacted at mike.creger @ gmail.com.

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