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first person

Illustration by Chelsea Charles

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They’re out there, taunting me. Chattering. Nattering. Scolding. Three grey ones and a black one. Maybe more. It’s war, and my enemies? Sciurus carolinensis, the eastern grey squirrel, a species that also boasts a rare white variety.

In the past, I tolerated these bushy-tailed rodents as they devoured the fruit and seeds on my serviceberry, eastern redbud and pagoda dogwood trees. I marvelled at their derring-do as they traversed overhead wires and soared from spindly branches in my yard to a nearby stately spruce.

How did this tolerance develop into an acrimonious relationship? It’s nuts. Really. A bountiful crop of chartreuse-coloured, lime-sized, citrus-scented walnuts that flourish atop my neighbour’s four-storey-high juglans nigra, black walnut tree. My quarrel is not with the nuts, but with the squirrels whose noshing atop the tree produces a hailstorm of husks and shells that stain my deck, patio umbrella, stone path, front porch and sidewalk. Fall winds of over 50 kilometres per hour add to the carnage by dislodging hundreds of plump mini-missiles. Ka‑thunk! when they hit the deck and path. Bong! as they bounce off the barbecue and table. Swish! as they gash leaves on bushes and plunge into perennial grasses. Maya, the gentle border collie next door, fears the barrage and hesitates to venture out back. It’s a walnut‑mageddon.

My crafty adversaries capitalize on this ready-to-eat feast, especially the overripe nuts that rupture after slamming into the ground. Easy pickings. Not content to nibble their treats in the garden, they scurry to the deck intent on leaving walnut shards and indelible black-brown splotches on every surface. I go on the offensive.

“Game on, boys! I’m getting these nuts before you do.”

Thus begins my autumn obsession.

Through the patio door, I spy a grey villain shredding a nut on the deck’s horizontal railing, a preferred dining location. Fragments drift onto the bench below. Banging on the door, I shout, “Hey, get going!” No reaction. Jumping up, I push open the door and screen, and rush out, stomping my feet. “Get outta here!” Success. Cheeky grey scampers away.

To discourage such dining experiences, I sprinkle cayenne pepper on the railing until I learn it could be harmful to birds. I replace the cayenne with stones collected by my granddaughter. A worthy foe knocks over the biggest one. I try cinnamon and stones, a seemingly effective approach until it rains.

Most mornings before coffee and without a jacket, I stride onto the deck. Ignoring complaints from two hip replacements and an arthritic back, I defy rain, wind, clusters of careening walnuts and a cadre of agitated, tail-twitching rivals. Bending from the waist and flexing my early-morning knees, I gather an intact nut in my hand, then lurch sideways to capture two more. Dozens remain, so I seek a more efficient method. Raking and sweeping results in nuts rolling and ricocheting off the deck and bouncing down the steps to join dozens more. I revert to stooping and scooping.

As I work, the incessant gnawing of my enemies mocks my efforts. It’s as if they’re signalling, “Hey crazy human! We’ve got nuts you failed to retrieve.”

And I think, “Bulking up for the upcoming winter, guys? Shouldn’t you also be stockpiling your spoils?”

I haven’t observed any of them burying this fall’s harvest, and when I discover nuts deposited in full view on my front porch, I wonder if they’ve missed their basic training. As for me, I’ve squirrelled away almost 1,000 walnuts over the past month, and because my insidious opponents chew through garden bags, I protect my stash in a deck box while awaiting the city’s garden pickup.

Animal lovers may protest my censure of the eastern grey, a native species, and will suggest the real target of my wrath should be the black walnut tree, also a native species. Fair enough. It’s been labelled “The Killer Tree” because its roots, leaves, branches and nuts exude a natural chemical that severely damages or kills a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and perennials. No wonder my feeble attempts at gardening have failed so badly.

All the same, I adore the tree and appreciate its shade and contribution to the city’s canopy. Season after season, it rewards me with the sight and sound of squawking blue jays, drilling woodpeckers and upside-down nuthatches that survey the neighbourhood atop branches that embrace five urban yards. In February, the sight of a crimson cardinal sitting on a barren branch has the power to lift my winter-weary spirits. And I confess, I enjoy the antics of squirrels as they circle the trunk in their mating games and rowdy play.

Hostilities have ceased. No more nuts, no nibbling, no gnawing, no obsessive behaviour. Today when I observe a confused eastern grey examining a flower bed that yields no nuts, I feel pangs of regret for my previous animosity. Will it succeed in unearthing nuts to survive the winter? Then, as I sweep and bag chunky walnut debris, my regret evaporates. Worse yet, one of these avaricious warriors has chewed holes in my deck box in a furious attempt to score the final few nuts destined for next week’s garden pickup.

Based on previous cycles, I suspect the black walnut will be barren next year, so there may be a dearth of food for the offspring of this year’s well-nourished eastern greys. As for me, it’s been 45 years with this tree and its multiple generations of squirrels. I wonder. How many more cycles will I have?

Gina Clark lives in Toronto.