Abert Squirrels, Ponderosa Pine and the Mysteries of the Planet

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” “Essays on Conservation from Round River” Aldo Leopold.

IMG_0333During our recent stay in Flagstaff, Arizona, we were entertained through the window at breakfast by Abert squirrels feeding on the cones of the Ponderosa pines scattered throughout the grounds of the hotel.  Curious creatures, they are quite different from our New England gray squirrel and are primarily found on the Colorado Plateau in the Southwest with tasseled ears and eating pine cones like corn on the cob to get to the seeds. Their obvious attraction for the pines (I’m used to squirrels and oaks, not pine trees) prompted a little research, first to identify them, then to learn a bit about them. From spring to fall, Aberts feed on the tender phloem (inner bark) of the pine twigs; they chew around the bark, exposing the treat.  When they are finished, the twigs fall to the ground, providing fodder for mule deer, normally too high for deer to reach without a squirrel assist.  In the winter, Ponderosa cones are the main source of Abert food, since they don’t store acorns or hibernate, eat they must.

A single squirrel tends to return to one tree year after year and can cause defoliation. Abert squirrels eat almost exclusively Ponderosa pine shoots and cones, but they provide a great benefit to them through a cooperating third party, ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi.  EM fungi strands act as extensions of Ponderosa pine roots; they are a vital component of those forests, helping trees draw water, nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients into the roots.  In turn the fungus obtains needed carbohydrates from the tree.  A secondary source of food for Abert squirrels is the fruiting body of EM fungi. Passing through the squirrel, the spores survive, spreading the fungi crucial to other Ponderosa’s existence. So the next time someone tells you that someone else is as useless as squirrel poop, you now have a rebuttal. This three way symbiosis is another of nature’s wonders.  Many examples of inextricably entwined animal to plant or plant to plant cooperatives are indispensable to the varied ecosystems that make up our planet’s living things. Abert squirrels aren’t just cute; they are metaphors for the complexity and dynamic interdependence so essential to the survival of all life here.

“No matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all the salient facts about any one of them.” “Essays on Conservation from Round River” Aldo Leopold.

Beside our main objective, the Grand Canyon, we took some side trips from Flagstaff. One was to Walnut Creek Canyon with its pueblos occupied, then abandoned a thousand years ago by the Sinagua, a pre-Columbian people who flourished from approximately 700 AD to 1500 AD. A Western branch of the Anasazi people, they contributed to the genetic and cultural make up of modern day Hopi.  Their name for themselves is still lost, but anthropologists named them “Sinagua,” Spanish for “without water.”

IMG_0260Walnut Creek Canyon is a National Monument located less than fifteen minutes from downtown Flagstaff.  Approximately 600’ deep, its rim is at around 6,700’ elevation. Ponderosa pines along with our Abert squirrels are abundant along the rim.  A Douglas fir ecosystem is on the northern shaded slopes of the canyon; directly opposite on the sunny southern slopes is a completely different ecosystem typical of the high desert with prickly pear cactus, other cacti and yucca plants.  In its shady depths, near the creek are Arizona black walnut trees, for which the canyon is named.  Over twenty species of edible plants are there besides the yucca, walnut and prickly pear cactus, including wild grape and elderberry. The contrast of the shady and sunny sides of the canyon is startling.

Up on the rim, the Sinagua hunted deer, big horn sheep and smaller animals.  They learned to construct dry farming flood pits in which they grew maize corn, beans and squash, the three sisters of Native American agriculture. The biodiversity of the canyon provided them food, medicine and abundant building materials, with our old friend Ponderosa pine supplying perfect ladder and beam stock.  The Sinagua got by on about a gallon of water per person per day. We modern day Americans use about 150 gallons a day for all our purposes.

We have become remote from our planet, its complexity, its beauty, its wonder, its remarkable life, and with that remoteness given away something precious to our understanding of who we are.  Aldo Leopold wrote, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim.”

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”  “Essays on Conservation from Round River” Aldo Leopold.

My friend Matthew gave me a transcription of Pope Francis’ general audience on World Environment Day in June, 2013. (Link to whole document)”Cultivating and caring for creation is an instruction of God which He gave not only at the beginning of history, but has also given to each one of us.”  He said that “cultivating and caring” for the earth entailed not only the relationship between man and creation, but to human relations as well – a human ecology.  Francis warns that the environment and other persons suffer when we heedlessly acquire in a “culture of waste,” sacrificed to the idols of consumption. His advice is concrete, achievable by all of us at an intimate level.  What do we eat?  What do we consume?  What do we waste?  What are our idols?

Pope Francis advises us to affect what we can in our daily lives and decisions.  Not a counsel of pompous self righteousness which can infect the “environmental” community; not a proud self aggrandizement, counting ourselves as enlightened and condemning others: businesses, governments, the rich, but possessing a calm confidence in doing the right thing each day:  achievable beginning immediately, human and personal. This does not mean we don’t strive to understand, to address and to improve local and even global issues, but that we start with today, with ourselves and with our families.

I’m not suggesting we revert to subsistence hunter gatherers, only that each of us more frequently simply goes for walks, if not in wild places, at least in the forest, along streams and the ocean, grows some things in our gardens so that we don’t come to believe that the only source of our food is at Whole Foods, and in those quiet pursuits, think about our origins, our journey and our purpose.           

“The wilderness will lead you to the place where I will speak.” Hosea (Come Back to Me), Gregory Norbet


Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views

3 responses to “Abert Squirrels, Ponderosa Pine and the Mysteries of the Planet

  1. Anthony Vinson


    I’m with you. Long walks through the woods are both refreshing and exhilarating. There’s a certain connection that I feel when in the woods. My thoughts are clearer, my heart lighter, and my outlook rosier. I would love to get out on a trail more often, but there’s that whole work thing…

    Fortunately there are plenty of “wild” spaces to be found in and around many urban areas. My friend, Jonah McDonald, wrote a book last year titled Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out in which he details 60 hikes all located within 30 miles of downtown Atlanta. Jonah is an Appalachian Trail through-hiker and has logged many miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, so he knows his way around the woods (and the desert). He operates his own wilderness guide service, taking small groups on three to four day adventures around the southeast. To places like Cumberland Island National Seashore, for instance. I grabbed a copy of the book as soon as it was available and have used it to discover several gorgeous day hike trails that I can get to with only a short drive. If working from the home office and in need of a great big dose of Mother Nature’s medicine, I can easily fit something in. Honestly, it was amazing to discover just how many wonderful day hikes there were from which to choose. Doubtless there are similar books for most other major cities.


  2. Rita

    You have to look carefully for that little Abert squirrel as his coloring is perfectly suited for his environment. Isn’t God good?

    I have a four year old granddaughter, Ellie, who hates to have her hair combed. When she refuses to let Nonna comb her hair, I tell her she looks like a squirrel. While in Flagstaff we bought a children’s book about the Abert squirrel. The cover has a lovely drawing of the squirrel with his long feathery ears. As soon as Ellie saw the book she shouted, “That’s me!” Grandkids are wonderful! BTW thanks Anthony, Jack and Bob for your wonderful posts. I tried to add a short post to the last blog this morning and thank everyone for the great discussion, but it wouldn’t let me. Will try later when Jack is around.


  3. Greg Parquette

    Terrific piece on the squirrels Jack, I completely agree that getting out of your supposed comfort zone into the wild, if you will, you may discover that your precieved comfort zone isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Margy and I have been lucky to have been able to get to the places you were visiting many years ago with Mark anf John, the memories linger even today. Also there are so many areas right here in our back yards buried under all this snow that will allow for a reconnect with the beauty that is all around us.

    You just need to take the time to appreciate.


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