Bob the chipmunk
When I first moved to my house, I was fascinated to watch the chipmunks that loved to play around my brick wall. I had rarely seen a chipmunk in my life, so this was a new experience for me. They were funny to watch as they popped their heads in and out of tunnels and dashed along the wall. I would walk out the front door and hear a flurry of activity as they ran for cover, but rarely could I spot them. Usually, if I wanted to partake of chipmunk watching, I would have to sit motionless looking out the front window for a few minutes before I would start to see teeny fuzzy critters moving around in my garden.
I really enjoyed them and discouraged the cats from chasing chipmunks, until the day I realized what destructive little bastards they are. Their tunnels, along with the ravages of time, had weakened the 8-feet tall brick retaining wall holding up my front yard and it was visibly leaning – more and more each year. Eventually, it had to be replaced, to the tune of about $5,000, which was the day I declared war on chipmunks.
But in the days when I watched them, I was fascinated at how their tiny little brains worked. They were smart, calculating and, above all, patient. They were little architects, too, as I witnessed in the various points where they would disappear into the wall structure and reappear several feet later. (Once, after I had declared war, I stuck a hose into one of their holes and water started seeping out of the ground in several different locations. I felt like I was in Caddyshack.) Despite having owned cats and having several neighborhood cats around (who stalk the chipmunks mercilessly), I have yet to see a chipmunk who has met his fate on feline teeth. I am sure some have; I just think my chipmunks are wily.
When a chipmunk wants to appear in public, it’s never a spontaneous move. Whether he wants to make a mad dash across the yard to grab a bit of food or just pop above ground to make a move toward a different tunnel, he assesses the potential pitfalls of his play. To a casual watcher, this looks like fear.
Let’s say our chipmunk is named Bob. Bob pokes his head out of the hole and spots a particularly meaty nut 20 feet away (a football field for us humans). He dips back down into the hole and thinks: did I see something moving? Am I alone? Do I have what it takes to make this run? Is the risk worth the reward?
In a series of flickering moves, Bob pops his head above ground. He needs to gauge the distance. Pop. He needs to do a sweep for predators. Pop. He needs to sniff the air for perhaps more distant threats. Pop. He psyches himself up, one last look. Pop. And then it’s time to go.
In a dash that makes professional runners look like underachievers, Bob sprints toward his prize and in a swift move, picks it up in his mouth and reverses course back to his home. In mere seconds, he’s back to safety, savoring his reward.
I’m sure, sometimes, the nut isn’t as large or as tasty as he had hoped. And, unfortunately, I think a lot of times it’s not a nut at all, but a disappointing nut-shaped leaf and Bob is left empty-cheeked.
The first time or two I saw something like this play out in Bob’s world, I thought, “Oh, that cute little scaredy-thing. He looks so worried.” As he would repeatedly poke his head out, I would agonize with him over the danger and concern. I would keep lookout for hawks. My cats would hiss and spit at Bob safely behind a window. But after seeing these moves play out many times, I realized Bob knew exactly what he was doing. I think he was definitely afraid, but the fear had to be turned into action. Sometimes, his moves paid off in big fat walnuts. Sometimes, just trash.
I feel like Bob the chipmunk right now. I want to stay safely curled in my little hole. But I don’t really have that choice. I have to survive and in order to do that, I have to pop my head out and see what’s happening. I feel like that’s what the last few weeks have been like for me. Curl up in a nice dark place, think through what I have to do, then pop my head out for just a moment. Return. Pop. Return. Pop.
And though I couldn’t see it, I’m sure Bob had plenty of times when he would retreat deeper into the tunnel and nibble on the nuts he’d already stored. He knew he’d have to go back out eventually, but that freaking close call with the cat was enough to keep him below the surface for some time. He needed time to calm down, think and plan.
Like Bob, the more times I’ve made the mad dash, the better I get at it. Like Bob, too, so far, I’ve never gotten one bit cocky about it. There are cats, hawks and plenty of unknown danger lurking everywhere all of the time. I can’t give up the fear because the threat is always there. However, deep down in a place that has become instinct, I know what I’m doing. Of course, probably unlike Bob, I do spend a lot of time deep below the surface contemplating how I can possibly go back out there.
But I must survive, just like Bob, so I’ll be making that mad dash soon. I just hope in my mad dash (which is going to look more like a slow-motion process that will likely take months or years to complete) there is a big, meaty walnut at the other end. And I hope I make it back safely.