The squirrels on campus have grown sleek and fat like landlocked otters, and I’ve taken to filling my jacket pockets with peanuts to keep them looking prosperous. They’ve become spoiled and have learned to gather in packs when they see me coming. They sit upright, looking expectant, paws extended in gestures of entitlement, aping their human cousins, waiting for a handout.
Campus is home to two species -- eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). The fur of the latter is brownish-gray, like the hair of an aging redhead. It’s the largest North American squirrel and the most common around Houston.
They’re brazen. Some will take a peanut from my hand. Others wait for me to throw it. They’re roguish, grabbing one peanut, darting to conceal it under dead leaves and running back for another. Then one of his colleagues snatches the hidden nut and the first guy runs after him, sometimes with another nut already in his mouth. I’ve seen four peanut-stuffed squirrels spiraling up the trunk of an oak, furious with greed, though it looks like courtship playfulness to us.
Thoreau enjoyed the company of squirrels and recognized the role they play in oak propagation. In a fascinating journal entry from Sept. 4, 1851, one that suggests how his writing mind worked, Thoreau first likens us to squirrels, then squirrels to us:
“In the summer we lay up a stock of experiences for the winter, as the squirrel of nuts,--something for conversation in winter evenings. I love to think then of the more distant walks I took in summer.
“At the powder-mills the carbonic acid gas in the road from the building where they were making charcoal made us cough for twenty or thirty rods.
“Saw some gray squirrels whirling their cylinder by the roadside. How fitted that cylinder to this animal! `A squirrel is easily taught to whirl his cylinder” might be a saying frequently applicable. And as they turned, one leaped over or dodged under another most gracefully and unexpectedly, with interweaving motions. It was the circus and menagerie combined. So human they were, exhibiting themselves.”
Thoreau refers to the Acton Powder Mill in Concord where gun powder was manufactured. In his journal entry for Jan. 7, 1853, he describes the aftermath of an explosion at the factory that killed three workmen. The 1851 passage is playful but already with a hint of danger. The gaseous form of carbonic acid is an odorous but nontoxic byproduct of gunpowder production, here stored in iron cylinders. The squirrels spin on them like unknowing clowns.