Thursday, June 25, 2009

Squirrels and Coyotes Out in the Open

Because the weather is so hot, I don’t spend my whole lunch hour walking. Rather, I stroll over to MSU’s Beal Botanical gardens, to better familiarize myself with all of the herbs and weeds by reading the little placards which explain the different plants’ uses. On these strolls, and walking around the campus in general, I notice squirrels all over the place, including the black squirrels, which I had never seen until I moved to this part of Michigan. I am a former Detroiter, but also lived in California for 20 years, and then moved here, to mid-Michigan. There were no squirrels in our California neighborhoods; for some reason they don’t thrive there like they do in the Midwest and elsewhere. The only squirrels we saw were California Ground Squirrels that live in burrows in more natural areas, not residential neighborhoods. My younger son, then in Jr. High School, came to Michigan with me, and mentioned that neighborhood kids were always surprised when he would shout, “Look, a squirrel!” because to them it was such a common sight. (One of our favorite sights was the way squirrels ripple as they run across leaf-piled lawns in autumn.) A Japanese MSU student I knew also commented on how she and her boyfriend took all kinds of pictures of friendly squirrels, because they’re apparently not known in Japan.

My son is now back in California, and mentioned that when he was walking in Huntington Beach’s Central Park last week, the ground squirrel population had become so dense that seeing them poking their heads out of their burrows, they’re so close together that it looks like a meerkat colony. This is likely what attracted the coyote, which he also saw on his walk. The coyote was just relaxing on a sunny, open lawn where other people were picnicking, playing, and pursuing their other recreational activities without taking notice of it. A couple walked past with their dog, and the dog became alert, although they did not. When another bystander asked them, “Do you see that coyote over there?” they replied, “Oh, we thought that was your dog.” There’s no reason coyotes shouldn’t loll about in public places, because who, actually, would chase after a coyote? A dog catcher or game warden might, but nobody else would have a reason, and where would they chase him to? I would only go after a coyote if he was menacing somebody’s dog, cat, or child. Now that this coyote has discovered that he can go about in open daylight unmolested, the rest will probably follow suit, and soon we’ll be seeing coyotes in all the public squares.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trees that Reach Across Time

Picking up on the previous topic, interactions with trees form an important part of many peoples’ childhood memories, and they also tie into family stories—so I’m always interested to hear about my friends’ and families’ connection with trees. Because of their relatively longer life-spans, trees are witness to history, so they enable us to experience connections across time. As a genealogist, it would help me feel a greater connection to my roots if it were possible for me to visit trees that individual ancestors had been fond of. Many of the trees I have planted on my 2-1/2 acres come from family properties, the offspring of trees that had been planted by my father or grandfather, and I always appreciate those connections.

Trees can also enhance our connection with historical figures. We know that the story about Washington cutting down the cherry tree is phony, but he may well have climbed some trees as a kid. Maybe that’s a bit too long ago for those trees to still be around, but knowing that “George Washington climbed here” would interest me more than “George Washington slept here.” I believe I’ve heard about certain communities having honored trees that came from seedlings of trees that Jefferson planted at Monticello. When my Texas son was visiting a few years back, we stopped by the spot “Under the Oaks” in Jackson, Michigan, where the first Republican convention took place in 1854, and I joked whether he’d like some Republican acorns to take back to Texas for George Bush.

Getting back to my campus walks, MSU, like any such institution, has had a number of notable graduates as well as illustrious visitors, so it would be interesting to know if some of them had clasped specific trees, or patted certain sculptures, or leaned out of certain windows, or relaxed on a certain bench or patch of ground, or what have you. On passing that same spot, it would enable us to have that imaginative encounter across time.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I’m back to walking now that my broken toe is mostly better. Unfortunately, I lost my groove for walking and blogging back in the spring, because I took on more course work than I could balance with my now full time temp work and family obligations. As my goal in walking is to find whimsy, imagination, and magic in the landscape, my current challenge is the MSU campus; I work here as an office temp, so I get deployed to different parts of the campus, depending on the assignment. Something you can really appreciate here are the trees, because the whole campus is an arboretum. Even in areas that are mostly buildings and parking lots, there are still some interesting trees, and many of them are labeled with little signs that provide their names and a bit of their natural history.

I particularly enjoy looking at very old trees with interesting shapes, including those with multiple trunks separating near to the ground, because those are the sorts of trees that young people can climb and play around in. No doubt, successive generations of students have interacted with those trees, and some must have memories of relationships with special trees. It would be interesting to interview MSU alumni about their memories of trees—as well as how they have imaginatively engaged other distinctive landscape features and architectural features of the campus. I know that when my Dad went here, he was in the forestry department, and the students would knock the juniper berries off the bushes and use them to brew gin in the huge creosote cookers in the basement of the department. I shall have to ask him if he has any other memories of trees.

One person whose memories of MSU would be worth recording is the poet Theodore Roethke, though, unfortunately, he is dead. He briefly taught here, (in 1935), shocking students and staff with his eccentric wild-man behavior, which included climbing out of the classroom window and creeping along the ledges while making faces into the windows. (This was for a writing class.) One night, Roethke went for a walk in the woods near campus, hoping to experience a mystical oneness with the trees, and came back in a disheveled and delirious state, which got him fired. Because Roethke used a great deal of botanical imagery in his writing, I have to wonder if he had some favorite trees on campus, as they may still be here. Indeed, it would be interesting to know which window ledges of which building Roethke had been climbing around on. (You can read more about this at Bill Peschel’s blog,; the article is “Theodore Roethke’s Walk in the Woods.”)

Another mystical encounter that took place in this general area involved Carlos Castaneda. I don’t recall where I read this, but Castaneda said that he was strolling the streets of East Lansing with a companion—or maybe it was someone who wrote that he had been walking with Castaneda—and anyway, they were surprised to see a strange creature which morphed into a fallen tree limb—or maybe it was vice versa. Again, no way of knowing where, exactly, in East Lansing this uncanny event took place, but it’s something to muse upon while out walking here.