Can I Forgive the Squirrels?

Squirrel relaxed and resting on the railing of our deck

This morning, I watched out my window as a squirrel climbed into the branches of the peach tree, going up and down several branches until she or he stopped at a bagged peach. She nibbled through the small branch it hung from, cutting the branch right off. I could see the leaves and twigs fall to the ground, even though the squirrel was hidden by other branches. Then, she took the unripe peach in her mouth–still in the bag–and carried it down and away from the orchard to some other roosting post in another tree. I didn’t yell or bang on the screen or try to stop her, as I have done on other mornings, because all the peaches have already been destroyed.

Over the last couple weeks, I had to remove over twenty of the bagged peaches after birds or squirrels left bite marks and the fruit had dropped off its stem, to the bottom of the bag. Some of the peaches had only a c-shaped mark that made me wonder about curculio. A couple seemed untouched. But I had seen the squirrels in the trees going after them. Then, a couple days ago I discovered that virtually every peach in a little protective bag had dropped to the bottom of the bag, and all of the peaches that I hadn’t bagged had disappeared completely. The peaches were all still green and hard, nowhere near ripe. I had just read about people using a spray made with peppermint oil and cinnamon sticks to deter squirrels, and was about to try it, when I discovered there were no peaches left to save.

Green peach with a bite missing, dropped to the bottom of a mesh bag, with another nearby.

I’ve been grieving the last few days. I put so much effort into this peach tree all through the spring and summer. Pruning it carefully. Six holistic sprays with beneficial nutrients. Three “Surround” kaolin clay sprays. Picking off leaves with peach-leaf-curl one by one. I was so hopeful when hundreds of little peach-lets started growing! I thinned the peaches so that none was too close to another. I put 80 little protective mesh bags on individual peaches. I even bought toy snakes and an owl to try to scare off the birds and squirrels. None of it stopped them. I had gotten only 3 cherries from the cherry trees, but the peaches seemed to be the saving grace for the little orchard I have been tending so carefully. Last year Margy and I had been able to eat only one ripe peach–and it tasted so good. So this year, I tried all the things to care for and protect them, imagining that taste in my mouth. And now they are gone.

I’ve also felt deeply shaken in my capacity as a permaculture gardener. Here is this little food forest with 2 cherry trees, one peach tree, and two baby apples. And no food. (Well–the raspberries did fine–but I already knew how to tend raspberries. And there were a few blueberries on our young plants. We thought we might get some hazelnuts but the squirrels also grabbed those before they were even close to ripe.) I do come away with a deep respect for organic gardeners and farmers.

But I have been harboring much anger and hate in my soul for these squirrels, and I feel very troubled about that. The original purpose of tending this land–this small place on the earth–was about finding our way home to earth community. Putting into practice the desire for healing the broken relationship between our society and the natural world. But when I try to grow food, so many critters become my enemies. Well, they probably don’t share the enmity–they probably think I run a fabulous restaurant. But meanwhile, I am watching them and hating them.

This morning, after the squirrel ran away with the bagged peach, another squirrel started playing with a stick on the path in the orchard. Literally playing–rolling over and over, turning the stick this way and that, chewing on it, then rolling over again. In a very cute way.

There is a lesson in this, I am sure. So I am trying to grieve, to let go, to open my heart. But I am still not sure I know how to forgive the squirrels. I am trying to listen to the deeper lessons.

A Nest in the Peach Tree

Photo: a nest in the branches of the peach tree, surrounded by leaves mottled with kaolin clay

Life is getting exciting in the orchard. The other day, a friend noticed an empty nest in the branches of the peach tree. It must have just appeared that day–the Summer Solstice–because I had been spraying the tree a couple days before with an herbal foliar spray and would have noticed it. But it seemed like it might be abandoned, and I wondered if perhaps its creators had noticed the toy snake I had hung from the tree the day before to warn off squirrels.

Today, I began to wrap and tie little woven net bags around the peaches–another strategy to keep them protected from burrowing bugs and poking birds and of course, squirrels. This year, I am trying all the things!

Photo: Peach tree, somewhat whitened by kaolin clay, with net bags around some peaches.

While I was slowly adding a few more bags, this little sparrow was chirping in the next tree over, as if she were trying to get my attention. (Later, I did some research, and she seems to be a native chipping sparrow.)

Photo: chipping sparrow behind leaves

Curious, I carefully put my finger into the nest (which had been empty the day before) and ever so gently touched the smooth shell of an egg. Holding my camera above the nest, I confirmed it.

Photo: one light blue egg with spots inside a nest

Of course, this left me with a dilemma. Do I pay attention to protecting the peaches? Or do I take care not to disturb the chipping sparrow and its nest? Hoping to do a bit of both, I kept putting more net bags around the peaches, but only on the side of the tree away from the nest.

With the bags around the peaches, I won’t need to spray the tree again with kaolin clay, and that seems like a good idea as far as the nest is concerned. These net bags require quite a labor intensive process though. The design of the bags could have been better. I decided to make a small cut in the top of each bag, on the opposite side of where the drawstring tie comes out, so I can pull the tie string out from two sides. That way I can secure it across the branch closest to the peach. (Otherwise, if I just tied it around the stem, I am afraid it would pull the delicate peach right off the branch.) So bit by bit I added perhaps 15 to 20 bags on peaches. I have many more to go.

And then I saw that the sparrow had returned to her nest. Maybe to lay more eggs? Maybe to keep one or more eggs nice and warm until they hatch. I read that it takes two weeks for the eggs to hatch, then 9-12 days for the young to fledge. I think we’ve reached a truce. I hope so.

Photo: head of sparrow is just visible over nest, behind bright green leaves