Mysteries of ants and squirrels: Idling away an autumn afternoon

On a recent stunningly beautiful, deliciously pleasant autumn afternoon, I did something I haven't done in a long, long while — absolutely nothing.

For several hours, I sat on the deck, just observing:

  • The changing light through the trees, sunlight now soft and golden, like an old master's painting, no longer harsh with summer's heat and humidity, the shadows lengthening as the days grow shorter and the sun heads for its southern hemisphere winter vacation.
  • The occasional leaves drifting lazily down from the oaks, hickories, and sweetgums, presaging the millions more that will shortly cover the deck and yard (and the hours to be spent with a leaf blower and rake).
  • The dozen or so astoundingly fat mud turtles, lined up head to tail on a log at the edge of the lake, basking in the sun's warmth.
  • The family of red-headed woodpeckers that hang around most of the year, churring to each other (one of the most monotonous of bird calls) as they tap, tap, tap for insects in dead tree limbs.
  • The lake, a sheen of blue, an expansive mirror reflecting the azure sky, the surrounding trees, and feathery horsetail grass plumes swaying gently in the breeze.
  • The fat, green acorns from the white oaks and the occasional hickory nut dropping onto the ground with a soft plop, or onto the deck with a loud bang. (White oaks and hickories, to my way of thinking, are among the finest trees on the planet. Well, also, maples and sweetgums and sycamores and cypresses and …)

Mother Nature's ways are indeed wondrous, I reflect — as well as perplexing: Why do poison ivy and crabgrass grow rampantly where strawberries and tomatoes will not? Why do the dratted deer, as numerous as rabbits, consider expensive hydrangeas and hostas their personal dessert buffet and ignore other nearby natural vegetation?

If I were not so hopelessly mathematically challenged, perhaps I could calculate the enormities of scale involved in the line of ants that starts on the ground, goes 12 feet or so up the side of the house, and then down 5 feet or so of twine to finally reach the sweet stuff in the hummingbird feeder hanging from the eave.

Maybe an entomologist could explain how an ant on the ground can even know the feeder is there, let alone calculate a route for it and thousands of its fellows to get there. It's a mystery to me.

For the longest time, I was puzzled at the hickory branches that litter the deck and yard each autumn, thanks to the squirrels. The cut end of each branch looks as if it had been neatly, precisely turned on a lathe instead of by squirrel teeth.

What evolutionary neurons in a squirrel's brain compels it to do this, I wondered? To what purpose?

Then it dawned on me: It's a pruning process. The silly squirrel likely hasn't the remotest clue that its compulsion for cutting off the branch ends will cause additional branches to grow next spring, producing more sites for hickory nuts to develop.

But clever Mother Nature knows …

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