By Kathryn Hall
After two years in North Carolina, I had made the decision to return to the West. Strangely, I knew one of the things I would miss about North Carolina were the chipmunks. I didn’t recall ever seeing any in California, and I was certain had they been about I would have noticed them. In Appalachia they were very abundant. The property on which I lived was a perfect haven for them as there was a small compact forest behind the house, and many trees lined the front as well. Their burrows were everywhere. I found the entrances to them as I gardened, round small gaping holes, often unprotected, sometimes beneath a plant or along a rock wall. Having researched them a bit I found this is rather uncommon so I had only to think that they felt quite unthreatened there by any predators and they made no great attempts to disguise the doorways to their underground homes. Finding them utterly enchanting and curious and elusive I had begun the practice of leaving them bits of nuts and sunflower seeds on one of two flat rocks in the back garden, just below the bedroom window so that I might secretly watch them.
In the fall I knew their urgency to store what they needed to sustain themselves through what would undoubtedly be a particularly fierce winter was heightened. I was happy to contribute some small fare to their store, though I took comfort in the knowledge that their environment provided an abundance of acorns, seeds and berries to readily sustain them. Chipmunks are quite lively and dart about like no other creature I ever observed. They are very well wired for survival, as they are extremely sensitive to the slightest movement, and disappear almost faster than the human eye can track. When I first moved to North Carolina and didn’t know of their presence my early encounters with them were almost disconcerting. I would think, “What was that?” not quite sure what just streaked past. I have actually read they are known to be quite approachable in some territories, but this must be in areas where tourists are common to them and they have learned they will be fed by folks. On that property they were very untamed and unaccustomed to interacting with people and remained extremely wary, which was to their benefit.
I confess I had hoped to establish some bit of trust over time with my contribution as they were so adorable, and I would like to have more chance to observe them. I remain grateful for the fleeting moments when I watched them discover what I left them this morning or that, as I peered ever so quietly from the bedroom window behind a curtain.
With the tiniest movement on my part they were gone in a flash. But if I was able to remain very very still I had the luxury of watching them pick up a walnut and review it round and round with their teeth, making sure it had no pod or shell to remove, then pop it into their expanding cheeks, only to pick up another which joined the first and so on, until their swelled cheeks were expanded to the limit. Then they did one of two things, which I found quite interesting. Some they took down their tunnels to a nest they had created of grasses, bits of leaves and the soft down of certain kinds of flowers, such as the dandelion fluff we are so fond of blowing to the wind. And they buried this portion of nuts and seeds just underneath their grassy nest, where it would be available to them when the weather became very cold and snows covered those gaping entrances to their burrows and they lay in torpor till spring beckoned them back into the garden where they would resume their charming race about again. But another portion of their store they buried about the garden or forest floor, maybe to be reclaimed, should they find it in the hungry spring. But some will not be found, and some of these seeds will sprout in the sun’s warmth the next year, and contribute to the landscape a tree or bush or plant that otherwise might not ever have emerged. We have the chipmunks to thank for this.
What seeds do we harvest and plant for future gardens? What is it we leave behind not to be reclaimed for ourselves but for those we leave behind? What part do we play in the scheme of the larger plan, acknowledging our connectedness not with that which we see about us, but with what comes even after we are gone?
This story is an excerpt from Plant Whatever Brings You Joy by Kathryn Hall who crafted the first draft of her book while living in Asheville. Please visit www.plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com for more information.