by Tina Wynecoop
Those red threads – let’s follow them:
The squirrel, known both as Red squirrel and Pine squirrel (Tamiascuirus hudsoniu) inhabits the North Columbia region – its boundaries are defined by the wide range of coniferous forests, not a superimposed international boundary. Tamas means ‘storer’ and this smallest of our tree squirrels stores its food supplies, winter nests, and birthing nests in whatever cavity looks promising.
Four decades ago blood poured down from the tree The Logger was felling. He had read that trees bleed. He didn’t believe it – until he unknowingly cut through a red squirrel’s nest. Grisly details aside, two of the nestlings had survived. He gently wrapped them in his red sweatshirt and brought them to the new teacher on the reservation to care for them. In the wild the mother nurses her babies for 8-10 weeks before they are able to venture off on their own. These kits were furless, their
eyes unopened yet – and they languished – until I learned that goat milk might bring them around. I found a goat lady in Springdale who supplied me with this lifesaving fluid. It worked!
Bottle feeding became my job and my joy for several weeks. Soon the squirrels were scampering after each other around the house. My desk was their ‘playground’ while remaining my workspace as I composed daily lesson plans for my first grade class at Wellpinit. The squirrel siblings went for outdoor walks with me, safely tucked in the hood of the red sweatshirt The Logger had swathed them in on that sorry day in the woods.
The last time I saw the kits was the same day they were asleep in the pouch of that sweatshirt. I had to teach so I hung the jacket by a nail on the trunk of a tall pine tree outside my back door. They ventured off on their own without even a tail wave goodbye. It was spring, 1971. Spring turned to summer and The Logger invited me to go on a fishing trip at Upper Tshimakain’s beaver ponds with his daughters and their cousins. I wore the red sweatshirt.
The ponds were rich with native trout. The Logger made each kid a fishing pole out of a slender branch, with a fishing line attached. The flies he had tied dangled at the end of the lines and fooled the fishes to think they had found dinner. We had fish for dinner. The Logger unraveled a red string from the frayed jacket and wrapped it around my ring finger. Who would have guessed there was a ‘jewelry store’ available on a camping trip! The engagement, I now realize, was as dear and unconventional as the man who introduced me to baby red squirrels.
After a lifetime on the reservation, The Logger moved his new family to a conifer forest closer to town – to a home surrounded by Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees – the perfect habitat for both little boys and squirrels. Red squirrels acknowledged our presence with their chittering scolds and by dropping freshly-severed pine cone grenades on our heads when we were outdoors. Then they gave us a house-warming by moving in with us. They raised their babies in the walls and attic. The house’s red cedar siding was so easy to chew holes in. Then our inter-species relationship with them took a downturn. A squirrel household cached within the walls of our home was certainly an attention getter. In our naivete we thought the little fur family was entrapped and couldn’t return to the outdoors without our help. Ever agile, and inventive, The Logger climbed to the attic and lowered a sturdy rope, weighted with a large rock, down the inside wall. It was meant to be their lifeline. Through many days we heard the family playing ‘tetherball’ with their new toy. The clanks and whomps reverberated day and night (red squirrels are diurnal).
With the home’s entryways newly sealed, the cars in the garage provided the next nesting opportunities. It is warm under the hood of a car and nesting material is right at hand. The car’s insulating sound barrier attached to the underside of the hood is made of heavy cloth which can easily be shredded. The whole piece of insulation would do nicely! A brood was born and removed (by us) ever so carefully. At the Honda repair shop a new piece of insulation was installed and held in place by a sheet of chicken wire. We drove the other car for a while. Red squirrels have one litter of kits each year. House and Honda were now out of bounds. Tree cavities were already ‘rented’ by bluebirds, chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches. Wait, thought Mama, what about the Toyota? A few weeks later, while she was out foraging, the Toyota’s owners made a trip to town – oblivious of the nursery under the hood. The car jerked and sputtered, acting like it was gasping for air. It wasn’t an act – the red squirrel mama had changed her address to the Toyota’s air filter. She had chewed and fluffed the material into a nice soft nest for her babies. A check under the hood revealed a pine cone. The air filter case held her five baby red squirrelings. Fortunately, there was a Toyota dealer nearby and the replacement installed. Later that afternoon the babies, sans mamma, made the return trip, still tucked in their nest and resting on my lap. The Logger always wore a red checkered wool vest in the woods and it served another purpose when we arrived home. We gently laid the kits on the vest on the ground where their mother could find them. She lost no time coming to us and bumping our legs hard with her nose – which, though not hurtful, expressed her frustration and relief. She rightly placed blame on her babies’ captors. Then she sniffed each of her babies and carried them off, one by one. She hid them in a nearby woodpile in the garage. Rescue accomplished. She turned to us and scolded: tsik tsik tsik chr-r-r-r-r-rr siew siew siews. Her fluffy tail, raised in an obscene gesture, told us what she thought of the kidnapping. She disappeared.
J. Allen Boone states in Kinship with All Life that “Life to the Ancients was an all-inclusive kinship in which nothing was meaningless, nothing unimportant. They didn’t make separating barriers – every living thing was seen as a partner in a universal enterprise.” Elder Spokan Indian women recalled the kinship and kindness their mothers had with animals, including the red squirrel (?iscc? ): While gathering tules for mat-making, the women thoughtfully left neat piles of leaves for the express purpose of providing construction material for squirrel nests in nearby fir trees. Of interest is the explanation the elders gave for this annual autumn practice, [an explanation] that acknowledged the similarity of technologies between humans…and red squirrels for building winter ‘homes’. (The Spokan Indians, by John Ross, p249.) Similarity indeed!
The Logger is one of many descendants of Arrow Lakes/Sinixt Indians who were compelled to search for ‘home’ outside their
aboriginal territory extending from Nakusp, B.C. to Kettle Falls, WA. The Spokane Indians adopted his grandmother, Nancy Perkins Wynecoop, into their tribe. Another thread of ‘red’ is her Indian name / pu?ck?k?il’ú / which in English meant “wife of a redhead.” She had married John Curtis Wynecoop, a friend of the Indians. “Home is the dearest spot on earth,” claimed a spiritual woman. And we know from the thread of experiences described, that location, location, location keeps home, – no matter the color, no matter the car, no matter the nest site, an ongoing adventure – and very dear. Reprint permission granted courtesy North Columbia Monthly (magazine (ncmonthly.com)