Sitting at my office desk, I gaze absent-mindedly out the window into the backyard. My wandering thoughts are pulled into sharp focus by the sight of spruce cones falling to the ground. Well, not falling exactly; being hurled. The red squirrels with whom I share my Anchorage, Alaska, yard are once again busily preparing for winter.
Among the most common residents of Alaska's forests (and northern cousins of the gray squirrels that inhabit most of the Lower 48), red squirrels are active year-round. They depend heavily on spruce cones to survive winter's scarcity.
In Anchorage, squirrels begin collecting cones in August and build their caches through September and even into October, assuming supplies last.
In more remote areas, the success of a squirrel's autumnal cone harvest will largely determine whether or not it survives our longest, harshest season; but starvation isn't a problem in my hillside neighborhood.
Here, squirrels can supplement their pine-cone diet with the peanuts and sunflower seeds put out by people like me. (I offer peanuts to keep the squirrels from raiding my bird feeders. It works most of the time.)
Still, the cone harvest remains an instinctive ritual. Watching the squirrels' frenzied movements in backyard spruces, I sense a life-and-death urgency, as if there were no time to waste.
The squirrel I'm watching this morning is a study in agility and hustle. After sprinting high up a tree trunk, it scampers out to the far reaches of a flimsy, swaying branch and stretches its body as far as it will reach. Then with quick, precise bites, the squirrel snips several cones and, one after another, flips them with mouth or paws to the ground.
The cones carve a smooth arc through the crisp autumn air and land with a soft thud on the lawn or adjacent forest floor.
Sometimes reaching far overhead, and other times hanging upside down, the squirrel is a marvelous contortionist, the envy of any gymnast.
Finished with one clump, it rushes to another. And another. I wonder if the squirrel somehow knows this is a year of plenty. The spruce trees in my yard alone have produced tens of thousands of cones; their tops are heavy with huge clusters of bright, scaly, greenish-brown fruit. There are more cones, by far, than I've ever seen in my nine years here. Enough for several winters, it seems.
With so much to choose from, I wonder, what's the rush?
Perhaps the squirrel's hoarding instinct has been sent into overdrive by this unusual abundance. Watching the squirrel, I'm reminded of my own fall harvest: picking blueberries. Though I've picked and gobbled these tiny wild fruits for as long as I can remember, only in recent years has my casual picking become a more formal, and valued, seasonal ritual.
Now, I annually head into the backcountry in late summer and early fall expressly to collect wild berries. My motivations are much different from that of the squirrels. Certainly the berries feed my body; but more than that, the act of harvesting them feeds my spirit.
In Alaska, where summers seem too short and autumns are even shorter, berry picking is a way to celebrate the changing seasons instead of fighting the downhill slide into winter's cold and darkness.
It's also a way of becoming better acquainted and more physically connected with my home landscape. By collecting and consuming the berries that grow in my wild "backyard," I more fully participate in the seasonal cycles.
This season, I've picked about 2-1/2 gallons of blueberries on a handful of trips into the mountains. That's a tiny haul by most harvesting standards and hardly worth mentioning compared with the bulk of the foodstuffs I'll purchase at the grocery store this year. Yet it's enough to make a few meals of blueberry pancakes and several pies, which I'll share with family and friends another valued part of my harvest ritual.
While the squirrel's harvest is directly tied to its survival, mine is a symbolic act, a reminder that my food comes from the earth, not from supermarkets and food-processors. Later in the day, I walk through the yard, checking on the squirrel's work.
Beneath one tree, I count nearly 500 cones, scattered on the lawn. Beneath another spruce, I count several hundred more. I also find a midden, the place where a squirrel has begun storing the cones it has dropped to the ground.
While my harvest is already ended, the squirrels will continue theirs for a while longer. Snipping, tossing, and caching cones, rushing up and down one spruce and then another, they are daily reminders that winter is fast approaching.
They also remind me to celebrate, and give thanks for, the abundance in my own life.