A thud near my head stirred me from sleep. The stirring wasn’t difficult. I was on the ground. We were camping, tucked away in a tent that hadn’t been warmed by the sun since we last slept in it in the back yard seven summers before. We weren’t in the back yard that morning. Back yards have more grass. We were in South Dakota, in a Custer State Park campground, on packed earth. Packed earth does not forgive, not an aging body, and not whatever was landing on it that morning.
The thuds were frequent but irregular, like the early moments of an approaching rain. This wasn’t rain and it wasn’t hail. It was, however, advancing on our tent. Leaves stirred in the branches above before we took one direct hit and then another.
We were under attack, mortared by a pinecone wielding squirrel.
The red squirrel is not a hibernator. He is an endurer of long, cold winters. That late-summer morning hung thick with fall’s chill. The sun would burn it off, but it would return by nightfall. Autumn’s mark was strong. The squirrel understood this and attacked his job of gathering pinecones with fervor, pelting us out of needed sleep.
Pinecones are ready for picking during a four to six week window. If the squirrel takes them early, the seed, which is what he is after, will not be developed. If he takes them late, they will have dropped from the cone. During that month, the red squirrel scurries around gathering and stockpiling pinecones, cutting them from the trees with his teeth and letting them fall to the ground.
Or bombarding innocent campers below. It all depends on perspective. The red squirrel is one of the forest’s most territorial animals and his viewpoint might be different from mine.
The squirrel is not only an endurer, he’s a teacher. If I watch him, I might gain a better understanding of how to move through life’s seasons, living well today while noticing what’s down the road. The squirrel does what he needs to do at the right time. He prepares, gathering and caching pinecones during times of bounty so that he can survive in times of want. Like the squirrel, I can attend to the changing of the seasons and learn to look up, to think about what’s coming, and to gather.
The dance between earth and sun make the shifting seasons obvious to the squirrel. The changing seasons of life are less clear. Less predictable. Less rhythmic. They overlap. Sometimes they morph into something unexpected and unrecognizable overnight.
This happens even to the squirrel. He doesn’t know when exactly the seasons will change or what extremes they will hold. He knows only that one season will eventually give way to another.
We met our South Dakota squirrel last month, on September 2. What the squirrel didn’t know and I didn’t imagine was that one month later, whether his gathering was complete, regardless of the state of his cache, the season would turn abruptly and bury his forest home under thirty-six inches of wind-whipped snow.
We are not squirrels. Our needs are more complex. Pinecones will never do, but we can prepare; gathering what we need, whether it’s rest or healthy habits, the Word or good conversation, in times of bounty so that in times of want our cache will sustain.
It’s hard to know how to prepare. Paying attention to the state of the cache, both its contents and its ability to contain, is one place to start. Attending to my body’s need for rest would strengthen mine, and help me make better use of what I’ve gathered.
How about you–what’s the state of your cache?