Some uninvited library guests go nuts

Cracking nuts is one of our winter's day pastimes, and by December we had quite a mound of black hulled walnuts from nearby trees drying in our farm's private timber-frame library set on the edge of the back pasture. We'd piled them by its little woodstove over the autumn, where we and visiting children could hammer them open on the stone hearth. Our library's motto: If you cannot read while nuts are being cracked, help crack nuts.

The place is poised atop one of the area's best sledding hills, which helps our book circulation and keeps children coming, even though it requires a bit of a walk from the road. Pages turn as small hands and feet dry off and warm; and in between chapters our pile of walnuts gradually dwindles.

Nonetheless, up until a couple of days ago we still had quite a mound. Last weekend, after the last tobogganers left I tossed the broken hulls, most still rich with flecks of nutmeat, into the snow by the door, thinking the squirrels would pick them clean.

They did.

We can only conjecture how they then gained entrance and demolished the mother lode. Perhaps via a bushy multisquirrel ladder with the uppermost acrobat actually working the doorknob. Or I could picture five or six of them in line, bracing their little back feet on the rubber mat and pushing a perhaps not-quite-latched door open.

In any case, on our next excursion to the library we found the door agape, the nuts gone (every last one), a dark residue of shattered hulls on the stone, and the imprints of what might have been dozens or hundreds of squirrels coming from all directions to their version of Rome.

We could almost imagine the message telegraphed in chattering lingo across the snow-crusted grove:

Food!

Snow-free!

Big pile!

No humans!

We begrudge them not a nut. Often over the past iced-in weeks we have wondered how the wildlife have been faring. We've eyed the tracks of deer, coyotes, raccoons, and rodents meandering about the frozen expanses of the pastures, seen the crust broken and disturbed where they'd nosed and dug down for sustenance.

Climbing to the loft for hay on mornings when single digits were the norm, I've found dead starlings, birds who had plenty of shelter among the bales, just not enough natural food to keep their internal furnaces stoked in the penetrating cold. We keep a platform feeder stocked with sunflower seeds, but the starlings are too wild to mix with the sociable nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, and wrens.

The squirrels cannot reach the feeder, which juts out from a window of the farmhouse. Feeling for them, I scatter some seed on the ground. But, savvy to the rodent-unfriendly ways of our three dogs, they keep their distance. Their territory runs along the edges of the back pasture, and into the maple and walnut grove where the library sits. The squirrels might have had their eye on the place since the autumn, watched us stock up the nuts. And waited until times were ripe, or desperate, or both, to raid and fill their bellies on our hoard.

During the next couple of weeks we'll be spending more and more time in the grove, tapping the maples, boiling the sap down to syrup. The squirrels will surely be there, too, a bit plumper and more numerous than they otherwise might have been this time of year thanks to their raid on the library. (I'll give them this: They never disturbed one book.)

As for the syrup, they'll have to satisfy themselves with the lickings from the boiling pan - something your average squirrel can only dream about on the thin side of winter.

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