Saturday, July 28, 2012

Squirrel Hell

“What a great party,” I said restacking the outdoor chairs, a smile spreading over my lips.
“Yes,” Mr. Wonderful said reparking the grill beside the fence.
“The sun, the food, the friends; it was perfect.”
“Yes.”
“Nothing could remove this grin from my face.”
“A squirrel is eating our apricots.”
“What!”
                                         
Back in December we’d planted several fruit trees including a Blenheim apricot.  Because I’m an impatient orchardist, we’d bought trees that were already several years old so they would bear fruit for us this summer and I was looking forward to July/August because that’s when apricots ripen in our Valley.  We’d planted our apricot tree in the backyard to protect it from hungry people passing by.  We hadn’t thought about protecting it from hungry squirrels. 

But squirrels were so cute and fluffy with big brown eyes that made my heart melt.  They wouldn’t steal our almost-ripe fruit.  I followed Mr. Wonderful’s gaze and saw eight apricots on the ground chewed through to the pit.  From the teeth marks it was undoubtedly a squirrel’s work.  Mind you, not a famished one because the fruit was only half eaten.  Instead it was the work of a slacker squirrel too lazy to chew around the apricot’s central stone pit so it just tossed the half eaten fruit aside and plucked another almost-ripe piece and hit the repeat button again.  And again.  And again. 

Just then the squirrel appeared, leapt from the neighboring tree to our apricot, plucked another half-ripe fruit right before my eyes and starting chomping away.  This one squirrel would decimate our entire crop of edible fruit before it ripened in August.  I decided: this was war!

The first stop was the Ivory Tower professionals.  The University of California had an excellent website for in-state fruit growers which suggested several time-sensitive methods to deal with squirrels.  According to its pie chart May-August was the season of glorious summer for humans and primo poison time for ground squirrels.  U of C suggested poisons—from Anticoagulants to Zinc Phosphides—be put into a bait station and Voila!  Squirrels and problem gone.  The only hitch was we had a cat who was more curious than smart.  If I put squirrel poison in my garden, I couldn’t guarantee that Jackson wouldn’t be hurt, too.  I dumped the poison option; metaphorically speaking.

Outside I saw Harold, our 86 year-old neighbor with the sparkling blue eyes.  In all his years Harold must have used some method to deal with ground squirrels, even if it was during the nicey-nice Eisenhower Administration. 
“How good a shot are you?” he asked.
“I shot skeet... in college… once—”
“You’ll need a shotgun.  Believe me you hit ‘em with lead bullets, they’ll never come back,” he said with a chuckle, which made me rethink the niceness of the Eisenhower Administration. 
“I don’t know—” I said looking for the right word to extricate myself from the conversation.
“Oh, you kids don’t want to hurt the vermin.  Then use rubber bullets.  Just don’t shoot out my windows.”

I retreated to our property.  What was wrong with me?  I had started gardening to experience the joy of growing our own food and finding harmony with nature.  And now I was contemplating poisons and guns to wipe out the natural wildlife.  When did I become a cold-hearted killer?  Weren’t the squirrels here before my apricot tree?  Before the house?  Before me?  The problem wasn't with the squirrel, it was with me.

That was it!  I couldn’t remove the squirrel but I could remove the temptation.  A friend of mine volunteered for the local arboreal organization, Tree People, where she learned that apricots are one of the few fruits that can ripen off the tree. 

That night while the squirrels slept I dressed in camouflage and snuck out of the house.  On my way to the apricot tree I tripped over 10 more pieces of half-eaten fruits.  I controlled my anger—so as not to blow my cover—plucked all the remaining fruit from our tree and tiptoed back to the safety of my kitchen encampment.  I put all the half-ripened fruit into a brown paper bag, folded the flap down and left it on the countertop. 

A week later the fragrance of ripe apricots wafted toward me as I approached the brown bag.  Opening the bag was like magic—our half green-orange fruits had transformed into orange orbs with a faint rose blush.  They were the ideal picture of what the perfect apricot looked like.  For breakfast I cut one in half and shared it with Mr. Wonderful on the back patio.  The flavor was sweet, juicy and perfect.  It was the ideal taste of what the perfect apricot was. 

From the table outside I watched the squirrel leap onto our apricot tree looking for fruit.  He didn’t find anything except, on the ground, the pit of the delicious apricot we’d completely eaten.

Squirrel—0; New House Girl—1