Simple Pleasures – by Florence Niven

brown squirrel on blue and yellow postAutocorrect was write. I mean, right.

At the end of summer, a friend emailed to tell me she was busy canning all the fruits and veggies of her labour. I replied, “Sounds like you’re heavily ensconced in the work of your garden.”  Autocorrect jumped in – as autocorrect does – with an unsolicited correction. Changing my comment to ‘heavenly’ ensconced.

In this case, autocorrect was right.

The tasks of preparing the soil, planting, and watering; gathering and preparing the bounty; labelling mason jars, and organizing the canned produce on pantry shelves, were indeed heavenly for my friend. Offering her countless moments of grace. A reprieve from the stress and uncertainty of the time.

She wasn’t alone in this. Once spring beckoned, gardeners of every description were anxious to slough off their quarantined quarters, and get outside to dig in the dirt – enlarging existing gardens, or starting from scratch.

For those of a certain age – for whom the ground was not nearly as handy as it once was – raised beds became the hot new trend. Keeping rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks from stealing ‘their’ portion of the harvest, an on-going topic of socially distanced, mask to mask discussion.

Interest in houseplants saw a resurgence during this time, also. Photos of lush greenery, accessorized with painted terracotta pots, suspended from macrame hangers, were posted regularly on Facebook and Instagram, by proud first-time plant-parents with time on their hands. Home décor accents reminiscent of a groovier time, for those of us who remember 1972.

This was the year both young and not so young, discovered, or re-discovered, the calm that comes from nurturing plants. As months of isolation crept by, with restrictions on daily activities the norm, we gravitated back to the earth. Our gardens flourished.

My personal piece of heaven during the great spring and summer quarantine of 2020, wasn’t actually in the garden, but rather, garden adjacent – high above the backyard perennials, around my honest-to-goodness squirrel-proof bird feeder. Where chickadees, finches and cardinals dropped by daily to partake of the safflower seed offering. The feeder remains in service – attached to the bottom of a series of giant metal S’s. Hooked one into another like the child’s game, Barrel of Monkeys – dangling from a limb of our big old maple. The last bastion of a battle hard won.

This was not the feeder I started with in April. That one, hyped as ‘allowing small birds in, and keeping everything else out’, was sheathed in a heavy metal cage, and was guaranteed to be squirrel proof. I filled it with what I’d heard was the most desirable of seeds – the black shelled sunflower. I hung it proudly from a shepherd’s hook, and imagined the many songbirds that would be adding our garden to their flight plan in the coming months. By the time I walked back to the deck, I noticed the first squirrel. Inside the cage. Deliriously happy to have stumbled upon the motherlode.

Those squirrels – so mischievous. I chuckled as I moved the feeder further away from the fence. I realize now, they saw this as a challenge. And no self-respecting squirrel ignores a challenge.

A tug and pull of wills ensued – becoming more intense as the days went by. Annoying, for sure, but having been raised to respect all of God’s creatures, I was determined to find an amicable resolution.

Over the next few weeks I moved the feeder further and further from any jumping-off points, only to discover just how far a squirrel was willing to hurl himself into mid-air for the reward of sunflower seeds. I placed baffles above and below the feeder, which they leapt over with aggravating ease. Following the suggestion of a YouTube expert, I added what I thought was an ingenious obstacle – a streamer of green plastic, cut from a pop bottle – that spiralled loosely around the hanger. Surely this wiggly-jiggly contraption would at least give the squirrels pause. My son said it looked like a snake. “Aha!” I thought triumphantly. “That’ll keep them away!”

It became quiet in the garden. Too quiet.

Dang. What looked like a snake to the squirrels, must have looked like a snake to the birds, as well. I removed the plastic obstacle.

The demon squirrels, put on earth – I was now convinced – solely to vex me, were emboldened by their victory. When they weren’t climbing into the cage, lounging against the metal grid as they ate, they taunted me by hanging from the enclosure and pouring the seeds into their greedy little mouths. Gloating superiority written all over their smug little squirrel faces.

Then one of them got stuck inside. He had eaten one paw-full of seeds too many. I panicked. He panicked. I tried to help but was met with nasty squeaks as I approached – as if the predicament in which he found himself, was somehow my fault. He thrashed this way and that, and eventually made his way out – scrambling along the fence top without a backward glance.

I got rid of the falsely advertised ‘squirrel proof’ feeder that day – replacing it with one that actually worked. I hung it from the aforementioned suspension bridge of giant metal S hooks. Out of reach of tiny paws. This feeder has a cage that moves up and down, blocking access to the seeds when anything larger than a songbird tries to perch. Upon the advice of a neighbour, I replaced the sunflower seeds with the safflower seeds. To the squirrels, the Brussels sprouts of the outdoor buffet – and of absolutely no interest.

Without the threat of a bushy-tailed ‘four-legged’ leaping onto the feeder, the birds returned. Gold and purple finches, woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches and chickadees are regulars. The ever-elegant Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal arrive together, wait patiently until the others have been served, then dine at dusk.

The squirrels and I have reached an understanding. They are welcome to play in the garden as long as they don’t go near the feeder. Since discovering the giant bowl of peanuts in a shell, left for them regularly by our neighbours on the left, and the multitude of riches in the neighbour’s massive garden on the right, they seem fine with this arrangement.  

Perhaps that’s one of the lessons of the lockdown. Whether planting and nurturing seeds, canning the bounty of the harvest, or communing with the creatures whose space we share – a sense of balance can be cultivated. If we’re lucky, the feelings of scarcity and limitation, brought on by the restrictions, might even shift – to feelings of abundance and expansiveness. Just by spending time in nature and discovering the myriad of simple pleasures waiting there for us.