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/

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/

Spring Dandelion Power

Dandelions, Courtesy & Copyright Patrick Kelly
Morning for the spring dandelion is gentle and calm
The world is no longer a struggle but instead a serendipitous balm
Your yellow buds open upon you, sneaking between others some pink, some white
More colors even still in the waxing new day’s light
 Spring Dandelion Power
There is no better time for the dandelion than when spring has sprung
The leaves are fresh green and so is the fresh dung
Birds do sing high up in the stretching yawning trees
Staking their turf, edges, and new nesting eaves
 
Spring when sprung well sizzles with waking signs
Of kin abloom drawn with straight growing lines
One end towards sun, the other down towards the deep
Until some roots build taps, and others go on the creep
 
The days are now joyous choruses of neighbor raucous crocuses
Avian acrobats whirling spinning diving like ferocious locusts
Shades of toothed green batten down the laden earth
Soaking and drinking and filling to fullest milky girth
 
And as the sun sets on each new spring day
I am reminded of the new presence by the heat that stays
Radiating, glowing, even after the moon has shown
Continuing the journey of growth and what has grown
 
It is amazing to think that each year the world mends
Its browns in all hues to life in all bends
From sails to seeds to germ and blossom
Dandelion life is both humble and awesome
 
So this spring when sprung look out your window or door
Remember that life gives always life more and more
If in doubt, don’t wait: be like the dandelion flower
Thriving in cracks and interrupting silly lawns with unrelenting blissful dandelion power
 
I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & © Patrick Kelly
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://www.logannature.org
Included Links: Patrick Kelly & Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Posts by Patrick Kelly

Stokes Nature Center, https://www.logannature.org/

Brain McCann, Roslynn, Dandelion, Friend or Foe?, Wild About Utah, Apr 4, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/dandelion-friend-foe/

Greene, Jack, Pioneer Day Edible Native Plants 2016, Wild About Utah, Jul 18, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/pioneer-day-edible-native-plants-2016/

Tulips and Daffodils- It’s Spring!

Tulips and Daffodils- It’s Spring! The Trumpet Choir Daffodils at Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
The Trumpet Choir
Daffodils at Thanksgiving Point
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Daffodil Encore, Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Daffodil Encore
Thanksgiving Point
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

My Favorite Sign Along the Path, Lilja Rogers, Published as Hocus Pocus in the Saturday Evening Post, 1961, Image Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer My Favorite Sign Along the Path
Lilja Rogers, Published as Hocus Pocus in the Saturday Evening Post, 1961
Image Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Mary Eating a Tulip, Courtesy & © Mary Heers Mary Eating a Tulip
Courtesy & © Mary Heers

My Favorite Photo Tulips at Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
More Tulips Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Close Up - Tulips Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Mix of Tulips Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Red Tulips Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Red and Yellow Tulips Go Well Together Thanksgiving Point Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Above Tulips From Rebound Visit
Thanksgiving Point
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

When I arrived at the Tulip Festival at Thanksgiving Point I was informed by a guide that the tulips were running late.

“No tulips?” I asked. I had heard they had planted 250,000.

“It has everything to do with the soil temperature,” my guide explained. It was April 14. She wasn’t expecting the tulips to emerge for at least another two weeks.

All was not lost, she hastened to add.

“The daffodils are up.”

So off we went along the paths of the 50 acre Ashton Gardens. Sure enough, hundreds of daffodils were waving their heads in the light breeze. I was especially drawn to a patch that they were intensely yellow, almost orange.

“Those are the ‘Tweety-Birds’,” my guide said.

I knelt down to get a good look at the trumpet shape of the flowers. Wow, I thought. This is the trumpet choir heralding the end of winter and the coming of spring.

So with my return ticket secure in my pocket, I went back to Mendon to wait. Snow was still on the ground.

This gave me time to read up on tulips. I found they were originally from Turkey. Tulip, in Turkish, means turban.

The exotic plant arrived in Holland in the 1500’s., It soon became so popular that the price went through the roof. At the height of the tulip mania, some people were willing to pay the price of a house for a single bulb.

About this time, a friend loaned me a book about this phenomenon, Tulip Fever. It turned out to be a real page turner. Set in 1630, young lovers in Amsterdam concocted an incredible scheme to run away and live comfortably in the colonies – if they played their tulips right.

Back in Mendon, when the snow finally started to melt, my neighbors began to tell me how the hungry deer had come into their gardens and beheaded their tulips. Their daffodils were left untouched.

Time for more research. I learned the daffodils produce a toxic alkaloid, lycorine, which makes them taste bitter. Tulips, however, are not only edible, but delicious.

About this time I noticed a lone tulip popping up next to my apple tree. No one planted a bulb here. This tulip had arrived as a seed. Years ago, the wind, or a bird. or an animal dropped this seed . Tulip seeds only take a few months to germinate. But it can take up to 5 years for the plant to produce a bulb which, in turn, produces the flower.

During WWII, when the German army occupied Holland, a large part of the population found themselves with nothing to eat but the tulip bulbs they had set aside to plant. They survived because a tulip bulb has as many calories as a potato.

I was sharing this tidbit of information with my good friend and neighbor when she reminded me the early Mormon pioneers had staved off hunger by eating the wild Sego Lilies that were growing on the nearby mountainsides.

Then she disappeared into her kitchen. She came back with a flower pot holding a tulip that had already bloomed. She pulled out the bulb and asked me if I wanted to taste it.

Never one to refuse a gift, I peeled off the outer layers and took a bite.

I chewed. She waited. It wasn’t bitter and it wasn’t sweet. I chewed some more. I wanted to say

green. Finally it came to me.

“Celery!”

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio:
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Postings

Tulip Festival, Thanksgiving Point, https://thanksgivingpoint.org/events/tulip-festival/
Tulip Festival: Bounce-back!, https://thanksgivingpoint.org/tulip-festival-bounce-back/ [accessed 5/13/2023]

Pace, Eliza, Tulip festival to return to Thanksgiving Point, KSL TV, March 7, 2023, https://ksltv.com/530567/tulip-festival-to-return-to-thanksgiving-point/ [accessed 5/13/2023]

Stefanaki, A., Walter, T. & van Andel, T. Tracing the introduction history of the tulip that went wild (Tulipa sylvestris) in sixteenth-century Europe. Sci Rep 12, 9786 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-13378-9 AND https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-13378-9 [accessed 5/13/2023]

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum, https://amsterdamtulipmuseum.com/tulip/
Tulip History Outside Of Holland, The Amsterdam Tulip Museum, https://amsterdamtulipmuseum.com/topics/tulip-history-in-many-nations/

Moggach, Deborah, Tulip Fever: A Novel, Dial Press Trade Paperback, April 10, 2001,https://www.amazon.com/Tulip-Fever-Novel-Deborah-Moggach/dp/0385334923

Eating tulip bulbs, Fluwel, https://www.fluwel.com/pages/eating-tulip-bulbs

Brown, Janice, First a Howling Blizard… A Poem by Lilja Rogers, Posted May 31, 2007, Cow Hampshire, https://www.cowhampshireblog.com/2007/05/31/poem-first-the-howling-winds-awoke-us-by-lilja-rogers/