For the Squirrels

I remember that windy morning, dragging the blue tarp up a mountain of leaves, straining with all of my might until he noticed my struggle and flourished the leaves away. He wore a red and black patagonia, and blue jeans with a thick leather belt and boots. Real boots, “that could be run over with a truck and still last you a lifetime.”

I got tired so he told me to pick up acorns. The oak tree in the corner always managed to distribute its hard-hatted offspring evenly through the entire yard. I squatted and began a collection, dropping a handful-a-second into the bucket, first making a hollow gunshot noise, until the bottom was covered and I could safely relish the swift “thunk” of acorns on acorns. Dad never picked up acorns, except to show me how to do it, and then he picked them ferociously, challenging me, “what, you can’t keep up? I’m gonna get ten times as much as you in one-tenth of the time— how do you like them apples?” He loved that movie.

Eventually the red-gold yard turned green, and the first bucket had long overflowed into the second and third. Three mountains of nuts. “That’s a lot of nuts.” I said. “That’s a lot of nuts,” he said. “What are we going to do with all of these acorns?” I asked, staring up, eyebrow raised. He surveyed the buckets and bit the inside of his cheek. “I’m not sure, let’s clean up and go inside for dinner.”

We gathered the leaf blower, and the blue and the red and the bamboo rake, and the trowel I had been using to dig for worms, and hung our manly equipment on the garage wall. We bent down together to take off our boots.

But then he spotted the recycling bin, pink and full next to the downstairs freezer. Lying on the top of the bin was a partially smushed gallon milk container. He thought for a second, turned his head, picked it up, and blew forcefully into the top so that the carton assumed into its original form. He tore off the label, whipped out his pocket knife, and cut from the rim, down and around and up again, so that the carton become scooplike and open. “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.

“For the squirrels!” he exclaimed.

“For the squirrels?” I questioned.

“For the squirrels!” he exclaimed, again, jumping to his feet with his boots untied, clunking as he bounced his way to the barrels on the other side of the garage.

“For the squirrels!” I exclaimed, understanding. I leapt to my feet with my boots untied and scurried after him. I squatted next to him as he threw massive handfuls into the carton-scoop.

“This is BRILLIANT” he announced, throwing one last handful into the carton and bounding out the garage door, headed for a corner of the yard where the squirrels roamed free and hungry.

“Mhmm, now the squirrels will NEVER go hungry during winter!” I trotted after him, laughing as my boots threatened to come flying off. I arrived as he finished half-burying the carton so that the acorns were at ground-level. He padded the dirt back into place with a trowel. “Come on, we’ve gotta make DOZENS of these!”

We made dozens of carton-scoops, each brimming with enough acorns to make the most stone-faced squirrel faint with delight. We embedded them around the yard, and come winter, we even made sure to shovel the snow off of each of them so that hungry squirrels might be able to find them. “For the squirrels!” we laughed together, again and again.

* * * * *

It’s now ten years and one tragedy later, and I, wearing the red-and-black patagonia and blue jeans, stumbled upon an original carton-scoop. It was hardly concealed and full of soil, and its sight brought this memory into the corners of my eyes. It’s a relic from a reality that has long changed, now fuzzy and gilded with time.

But it is not a sad memory, rather, it is brimming with joy and love and poignance; it is crisp and untouchable and permanent, and it will always be with me. For me, it illustrates the importance of perspective, that life is the way that you perceive it to be. There is no reason that yard work or shoveling or tedious problem sets must be tedious or offensive. There is similarly no reason why a golden sunset or a gathering of friends must be joyous. Our existence is governed by interpretation— how we associate event with sentiment. This is not necessarily a subconscious occurrence: we do have agency in interpreting each of the facets of our life. Crumpled plastic in a bin does not in itself feed a squirrel — until you let it! So in the grandest sense, redefine the boundaries of your life. How might you reinterpret garbage into happiness? Where is your sadness merely a result of diseased perception? Look carefully— it is often a choice. Find new perspective. Acceptance is a cardboard prison. Knock it down and look around; do any squirrels need feeding?

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Eggs! Eggs! Unfortunately, Eggs.

Sometime during last night, Darwin laid her first oothecae, which is Praying Mantis for “egg sack.” It’s about three and a half inches long, pastel green, and a few millimeters thick. Although you can’t see each individual egg, there are ripples on the surface of the ootheca that indicate where some of the ~three dozen eggs are located.

So this is an interesting occurrence. Darwin is unfertilized; as in, she has not mated with a male of the same specie. Yet, she clearly just laid eggs, and is likely poised to do so again. Since Darwin never mated, common knowledge might find this event slightly preposterous. After all, a zebra or a pigeon or a human female certainly cannot reproduce without a mate.

It appears that Darwin has conducted parthenogenesis, which derives its roots from the greek parthenos, meaning ”virgin”, and genesis-birth,” is a form of self-fertilization. Without any genetic input from a mate, Darwin has laid eggs that will eventually hatch as almost exact identical copies of herself. However, these offspring will be sterile, and will be exclusively female. In nature, parthenogenesis is a remarkable technique for quickly colonizing an area, bypassing the complications of sexual reproduction. Mantids in the wild can thus survive in areas of low population density where other animal species might not.

However, there is the issue of having absolutely no genetic variation among a population. If some exogenous factor emerges within a habitat— a disease, or a decrease in temperature, or a volcanic eruption or other natural disaster— since there is no variation at all within the population, the entire colony is more likely to collapse than evolve.

I wanted Uroborus to reach adulthood before Darwin conducted parthenogenesis. Borus is a male Ghost mantis with a brown coloration and an expectedly different genetic makeup. However, Borus only recently had his 6th molt, which leaves him one short of adulthood (wing buds have formed, so within a month, he will molt into adulthood).  Hopefully, Darwin will still be receptive to Borus, though I’m not sure if sexual reproduction is possible at this point after parthenogenesis has taken place.

All this being said, Darwin is a captive mantis, as will be her progeny, and is unlikely to be exposed to a  selecting force such as widespread disease, drought or predation. So it’s really not a big deal, and I look forward to more pastel green oothecae appearing over the next few months.

Here’s a few pictures of the egg sack and of Borus molting.