This bushy-tailed farmer had an air of purpose

I've been keeping an eye on the corner of our yard. Last November when fat and furry squirrels frisked around the neighborhood making preparations for winter, I noticed one of them venturing onto our lawn with his jaws clamped onto half an ear of corn. (I'm assuming this squirrel was male, based on size and inexplicable behavior.)

At first he appeared just to be passing through. Then he stopped, laid down his burden, sat upright on his abundant haunches, and cased the area where grass meets plant bed.

With an air of purpose, he bit off a kernel and held it in his front paws. He licked it thoroughly and then carried it to the bed (about four feet from where he had deposited the ear). There he dug a small hole, dropped the kernel into it, and covered it, using his front feet to pat the dirt.

Returning to his corn-cob base of operations, the enterprising critter bit off another morsel and put it through the same licking process before burying it a foot or so away among the blades of grass.

By this time I had moved to a larger window and drawn up a chair.

Over the next few minutes, our bushy-tailed farmer repeated this procedure about eight or 10 more times, burying the corn in what seemed like random spots, some in the grass and some in the bed - and one (almost) on the sidewalk, until he thought better of it.

Meanwhile, the mail carrier walked right past him. She was so engrossed in sorting and he in planting that they appeared to take no notice of each other, even though they nearly collided.

Eventually this uninvited horticulturist, his work in our field apparently done, picked up his treasure and bounded dolphin-like across the street, where he stopped and did some more planting before continuing his project on somebody else's lawn. (A couple days later, we found a partially stripped half ear of corn parked in a clump of wild grass on the other side of our front yard. It remained there a day or two, then disappeared. Maybe little Johnny Cornkernel took some time off.)

I wondered whether squirrels have some kind of instinct that allows them to return in the winter to dig up what they buried in the fall.

During the winter months I checked the area periodically for holes in the snow. I found no evidence of disturbed snow.

Maybe this squirrel never intended to come back for his cache of corn. Could be that he had eaten all he could hold and didn't know what to do with the surplus. Perhaps he was just being - well, squirrelly.

The squirrel's motives aside, I wondered whether we would have a crop of corn in the front yard come spring.

My thought sailed back to a day when I was small enough that I had to climb to reach an ear of corn our neighbor had hung on a fence post for the birds. I repeatedly (and just as randomly as the squirrel) pushed my finger into the soft dirt of our garden and dropped the purloined kernels into the tiny holes, then covered them with dirt. Unlike the squirrel, though, I planted every single kernel - in an area about one square yard.

After some time, pretty green shoots appeared. Lots of them. They looked like grass to me, but my mother, having spent most of her life farming, knew what corn looked like.

With a bit of prodding I confessed, and she thinned the crop, leaving four well-spaced stalks for me to watch as they grew to maturity.

From my perspective they seemed to attain a height of 10 feet or more, but it was probably about half that.

Now, I'm not a gardener, but I'm pretty sure that corn planted in November isn't going to come up in the spring. Despite such logic, though, I admit I've looked for shoots a couple of times since the snow melted.

Just to be sure.

As I recall, the birds ate most of the corn that grew from the kernels I stole as a child. In a similar spirit of poetic justice, if we do find any corn growing in the front yard, I promise to hand it over it to the squirrels.

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