Squirrel Tales

Evergreen Cone Scales, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes
Evergreen Cone Scales
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes

Nature Rings, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes Nature Rings
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes

The recent snows have made the sledding hill at Edith Bowen Laboratory School on the campus of Utah State University a popular place, but without snow, children flock at recess to the wild area under the oak trees to harvest acorns. I’ve invited one of these students, a seven-year-old first grader named Lila, to explain this phenomenon:

“You get an acorn and you rub the pointy bottom part and keep doing it for a bit and then you can put it on whatever finger it fits on and it turns into a nature ring.”

They trade them and then squirrel the rings away in their lockers. Sometimes they stop to notice the squirrels scolding above them in the trees, and one day I sat with them to appreciate a noisy one. Nibbling away, its eight black claws rotated the little nugget it was holding. Standing erect so I could see the whitish belly fur and bushy tail, it kept me in its sights as I sketched its silhouette and details in my nature journal.

The Natural History Museum of Utah sponsored another Squirrel Fest during the first week of December, and I should have been better prepared to identify it so I could participate in that project during the same month as the Christmas Bird Count. The NHMU website reports that more than 900 Utah citizen scientists watched for and collected data on fox squirrels and other squirrels in 2023. I know now that my squirrel wasn’t a fox squirrel native to the eastern U.S. Those critters are moving in. Actually, they have been spreading throughout northern Utah since 2011. I know mine was probably not that target species because the fox squirrel is larger and has a bright yellow or orange belly and a long, very bushy tail.

Here’s another story. One June afternoon last summer in the Cache National Forest, I stumbled upon a massive pile of evidence that squirrels had been busy, having stashed their food finds and then unpacking them. The pile of evergreen cone scale leftovers was over three feet tall. I had seen middens at the base of trees before, but never had I seen a pile this incredible. Even though it was a snow pile that the cone scales covered, the insulation slowing the melt, it was still monstrous.

As most of the students on the first day launching my first ever university writing class described themselves as writers with words like decent, ok, alright, unpolished, and mediocre, I thought about that pile of potential. They have stories, piles of stories to tell and teach, squirreled away maybe, but ready to thaw.

Just like Kate DiCamillo’s superpowered squirrel Ulysses in her children’s novel Flora and Ulysses, we all have stories to write. DiCamillo wrote, “He would write and write. He would make wonderful things happen. Some of it would be true. All of it would be true. Well….Most of it would be true.”

This year on January 21 we celebrate Squirrel Appreciation Day. But whether you watch and write about squirrels or anything else, we think it is time for you to get writing stories just as magical as nature rings made of acorns at recess.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am Lila Hoggan.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes and Lila Hoggan, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Shannon Rhodes, https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

DiCamillo, Kate. Flora and Ulysses. 2013. Candlewick Press. https://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?mode=book&isbn=0763687642

Greene, Jack. Intelligent Tree Squirrels. Wild About Utah, Oct. 17, 2022. https://wildaboututah.org/intelligent-tree-squirrels/

Larese-Casanova, Mark. Nutcrackers and Squirrels: Farmers of the Forest. Wild About Utah, Aug. 26, 2013. https://wildaboututah.org/nutcrackers-squirrels-farmers-forests/

Natural History Museum of Utah. Utah Fox Squirrels. https://nhmu.utah.edu/citizen-science/utah-fox-squirrels

Strand, Holly. Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Wild About Utah, Nov. 26, 2009. https://wildaboututah.org/rocky-the-flying-squirrel/

Gratitude for Naturalists

"Paralyzing Berries"
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
“Paralyzing Berries”
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Janet Ross & Shannon Rhodes on the San Juan River, 2022
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Janet Ross & Shannon Rhodes on the San Juan River, 2022
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Once upon a time my family met what we now call ‘paralyzing berries’ on a hillside hike. I still don’t know the common name, let alone the scientific one. I sure could’ve used Naturalist Jack’s plant identification and probable warning not to taste those tart wild berries that day. I’ve had the good fortune though to spend time with Wild About Utah’s Jack Green discussing the Wilderness Act walking among the Mt. Naomi wildflowers and along the Lake Bonneville Shoreline. It reminds me of a scene Kenneth Grahame wrote in “The Wind in the Willows” that captures the relationship between a naturalist and a naturalist’s companion: “Absorbed in the new life, the scents and the sounds and the sunlight…it was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both paws and gasp, “O my! O my! O my!” Water Rat was paddling and chattering on as one extremely familiar with, yet not desensitized to, the magic of the place. Sometimes now I find myself a Rat because I was once a Mole.

Let me explain. Three years ago I wrote a page in my nature journal and a related Wild About Utah piece titled “I Notice, I Wonder” as I sat soaking up the smells and the sights sitting alone in the Cache National Forest. Although I was able to in solitude concentrate on wellness amid the pandemic, I wonder how much more rich my experience might have been with a knowledgeable naturalist guide at my side. The third part of this beloved “I Notice, I Wonder” awareness activity outdoors is “It Reminds Me Of…”

Passing some wild berries just this week reminded me of the afternoon 30 years ago my friend Allan Stevens, biology professor at Snow College, taught me about dwarf mistletoe and led me to research the difference between it and witches broom rust in conifers. I’ve never enrolled in one of Allan’s courses, but that’s the best part of having connections to naturalists. They teach you even when you are just out for a drive in the canyon. They have invested time to know how to read nature, they know the names and relationships in an ecosystem, and they usually have the answer to any question you could ask. Dozens of times since then I’ve answered that same question about the thick-growing growth in the trees as others have looked to me for clarity.

Similarly, looking at the berries reminded me of the day Utah Master Naturalist’s Mark Larese-Casanova taught me the term krummholz effect, from the German words “crooked wood,” that describes trees deformed from fierce winds. He did this as we stood atop Big Cottonwood Canyon, gazing at lopsided trees’ persistence in adapting to harsh conditions. That memory reminded me of cruising along a lazy stretch of the San Juan River on a raft with another legendary naturalist named Janet Ross. Just before the Eight Foot Rapid, she taught me to notice the holes we were passing. She said that besides the usual stick lodges, a beaver will build a den in the sandy river bank. Fascinating facts from fascinating people. I’m grateful for these and other naturalist mentors in my life.

So, who unlocked the mysteries of nature for you? Was it a relative, a summer camp leader, maybe a teacher? In this season of gratitude you might consider how to better be Rat for the Moles in your influence as you notice, wonder, and remember other illuminations in the wild. Boldly share as a growing naturalist what you know about plants, animals, and wild relationships with others as you encounter them together.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Additional Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
    Courtesy & © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
    Courtesy & © Anderson, Howe, Wakeman
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

BEETLES and The Regents of the University of California. I Notice, I Wonder, It reminds me of. 2020.
http://beetlesproject.org/resources/for-field-instructors/notice-wonder-reminds/
and ​​http://beetlesproject.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/I-Notice-I-Wonder-It-Reminds-Me-Of.pdf

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/289/pg289-images.html#chap01

Rhodes, Shannon. I Notice, I Wonder. Wild About Utah, August 31, 2020. https://wildaboututah.org/i-notice-i-wonder/

Ross, Janet. A Place Called Home: Quilting a Life of Joy on the Colorado Plateau. September 13, 2023. Colorado: Lost Souls Press. https://www.amazon.com/Place-Called-Home-Quilting-Colorado/dp/B0CJ41XFWH

Strand, Holly. Kissing Under the Dung Twig. Wild About Utah, December 20, 2012. https://wildaboututah.org/kissing-under-the-dung-twig/

Schwandt, John. Fir broom rust. 2005. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5187433.pdf

U.S. Forest Service. Broom rusts of spruce and fir. 2011. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5336985.pdf

U.S. Forest Service. Mistletoes. https://www.fs.usda.gov/r3/resources/health/field-guide/pages/Mistletoes.shtml

Cattail and Teasel

Cattail and Teasel: Josie's Nature Log Page. Used by Permission. Photo Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Josie’s Nature Log Page
Used by Permission
Photo Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Teasel in Bloom with Bumble Bee Photo Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Teasel in Bloom with Bumble Bee
Photo Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Cattail and Teasel in Bloom Photo Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Cattail and Teasel in Bloom
Photo Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Dried Teasel Photo Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Dried Teasel
Photo Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

For many, this is the season transition between summer and back to school. This month, along with the generous gifts of caramel apples, whiteboard markers, and number 2 pencils, a child handed me a green notebook and a request. One of the greatest compliments a teacher could possibly receive, in my opinion, from a student having never been on any of my class lists, is an invitation to make a writing dialogue journal, a pen pal exchange with no grades or due dates attached. Today her entry concludes with, “Also I drew a picture of you and me in pencil.” I withdraw from the notebook’s back flap a flattering illustration of flowers, smiles, and sun rays, grab my colored pencils, and head outside to write.

Terry Tempest Williams honors a similar marshy invitation, begging us to enter the wonders of the wetlands, in her book “Between Cattails” with exquisite Peter Parnall illustrations. Amid snails and scuds, damselflies and waterlilies, red-winged blackbirds and mosquito tumblers, I am drawn to the familiar cattails. Having just spent some lazy summer days reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” I now know that one can appreciate a cattail for its cucumber-tasting pith and protein-packed pollen, its gel that can soothe sunburns, and its fluff that can be used as tinder to light a fire or as soft yet absorbent layers in bedding. She taught me that “one of the words for cattail in the Potawatomi language …. means ‘we wrap the baby in it.’” When she takes students outside, she lets the plants teach them.

Many children I teach can identify cattails, but as I take my Josie journal out to the marsh to compose my writing response, I find another familiar plant that I cannot name. Quickly I realize that it has pale purple flowers; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in any color other than brown. Once again I find how unaware I have been, and a simple plant guide check reveals the name Dipsacus fullonum, or common teasel. It is an invasive tall plant with a spiky thistle-like flower head and more spiky spears growing up around it. Small dense flowers, from 250 to over a thousand of them, each blossom for only one day. I had only ever noticed it after its biennial life cycle: flowering, dying, then persisting as a dried stem and flower head the next season. Dipsacus comes from a Greek word meaning “thirst,” referring to the leaf cups at the stalk that collect rainwater and catch insects. Sometimes listed as noxious species, this non-native plant was brought from Europe and valued for teasing wool. Today I see bees are drawn to them, and next year finches and other seed-loving birds will visit.

Turning her drawing into my nature journal for this day’s outing, I add my plant perspective. I add some silver to the brown in my teasel-y hair and purple flowers to her shirt. She wrote that “writing makes me feel in my element” and when I take writing outside and really take time to notice the details, I couldn’t agree more.

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am wild about Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Nature journal entry used with permission from Josie Dorsch and her parent Breanna Studenka, All Rights Reserved
Audio: Crickets Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
    Birds: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Shannon Rhodes, https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

iNaturalist. Wild Teasel. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/56002-Dipsacus-fullonum

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. 2013. https://www.robinwallkimmerer.com/

National Park Service. Exotic Species: Common Teasel. https://www.nps.gov/articles/common-teasel.htm

Tilley, Derek. Commonly Occurring Wetland Plant Species for Idaho and Utah NRCS Wetlands Delineators. March 2019. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/plantmaterials/idpmctn13441.pdf

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Common Teasel. https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/plants/common-teasel

Williams, Terry Tempest. Between Cattails. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1985. https://www.terrytempestwilliams.com/

What’s On Your List?

What's On Your List? Canoeing in Benson Marina, Benson, Utah Courtesy & Copyright Shannin Kishbaugh, photographer
Canoeing in Benson Marina
Benson, Utah
Courtesy & Copyright Shannin Kishbaugh, photographer

A Leech on Trip Armstrong’s Thumb Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer A Leech on Trip Armstrong’s Thumb
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

A Leech Escaping a Container Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer A Leech Escaping a Container
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

If I were to ask you to craft a list of words that represent your connection to the natural world, which words immediately pop into your mind? Of course, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.” Yet, Brooke Smith published her book “The Keeper of Wild Words” in response to learning that nature words she loved were replaced in the Oxford Junior Dictionary for words like chatroom and voicemail.

Grandmother Mimi tells young Brook, “If we don’t use words, they can be forgotten. And if they’re forgotten, they disappear.”

That voice was the person who gave me this beautiful book, fellow Edith Bowen Laboratory School teacher Shannin Kishbaugh. I invited her with me to talk about wild words.

What words top your list? I would say calm, peaceful, freedom, exploration, and wonder.

My list evolves, but it always has wapiti and mica schist. It includes caddisfly casings on river rocks and cumulonimbus clouds in the sky. I love red-winged blackbirds I saw this morning in the phragmites along the roadside, curlycup gumweed I discovered at Hardware Ranch, stinging nettle walking the banks as a child with my father just off Fireclay Avenue in Murray, and hoodoos in Goblin Valley.

My most recent word is leech. Shannin, when you hear that, what are your words? Uncertainty, fear, dirty, slimy, old documents and uses in medicine. I’ve become a lover of water bugs this year, but still leeches feel extreme.

Well, those are very different words from your nature words. Not long ago at a conference cleverly titled “In Mud” about place-based education for young children, I stood with teachers from Washington state to Washington D.C. While the goal was discussing developing nature inquiry projects based on interest of the students, a colleague saw a dark blob on another’s boot and for the remainder of the workshop, we as educators huddled in a circle playing with the leech like children. It slithered and reached; we gazed in wonder and some apprehension. I realized I’d never spent time appreciating a leech.

There are lots of leech species, including some found only in Utah. They begin life in a cocoon which surprised me, they have suckers that give them the reputation as selfish parasites even though they don’t all suck blood, and they play an important role in the food chain. This spring when we took our first graders out again to explore what lives in the water, this time to Benson Marina of Cutler Reservoir, our students canoed past an osprey nest, captured the cattails in watercolor, and even observed a leech clinging to our guest scientist Trip Armstrong’s thumb. As the students worked, your idea was to collect the words, their exclamations, and offer them back to them to use in writing list poetry.

Let’s end with some of the nouns, adjectives and verbs from their list: “paddle whirlpools, dunking ducks, pelican peace, and ripple reflections.” And of course, “little leech. It was the best feeling. Happiness all around me.”

We are Shannon Rhodes and Shannin Kishbaugh, and we are wild about Utah words.

Credits:

Images: Canoeing – Courtesy & Copyright Shannin Kishbaugh, Photographer
Leeches – Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Shannon Rhodes, https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

Andrews, Candice Gaukel. (2009). Nature Words on the Brink of Extinction. https://www.nathab.com/blog/nature-words-on-the-brink-of-extinction/

Black, Riley. (2021). New species of leech found in Utah. https://nhmu.utah.edu/articles/2023/05/new-species-leech-found-utah

Govedich, Fredric R. and Bonnie Bain. (2005). All About the Leeches of Montezuma Well. https://www.nps.gov/moca/learn/nature/upload/montezuma_well_leeches.pdf

Morse, Susan. A Few Words for Nature Nerds. https://www.fws.gov/story/few-words-nature-nerds

Smith, Brooke. (2020). The Keeper of Wild Words. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. https://www.chroniclebooks.com/products/the-keeper-of-wild-words

U.S. Department of the Interior. (2020). The Conservation Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. https://www.doi.gov/blog/conservation-legacy-theodore-roosevelt

Utah State University Extension. Key to Aquatic Macroinvertebrates in Utah. https://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/macrokey/no-shell/worm-like/