I'm not ready to stop tilting at windmills

Friday, April 4, 2008

You know, the older I get, the less riled up I am. Things that used to set me off don't bother me at all these days. What's going on?

There was a time when the spring potholes showed up that I would rant and rave about those car-banging, body-smacking craters in the pavement. Nowadays I see them as nature's speed regulators. We all go too fast through life. It's time to slow down, keep an eye out for axle breakers and enjoy the magnificently blooming tulip trees.

Potholes are like relatives who come to visit, eat too much, never make a bed, leave wet towels on the bathroom floor and wonder why you can't take a week off work to show them the sights. Eventually, they go away. Nearly always.

Pesky critters used to make me see red. I'd holler at blue jays robbing eggs from nests. I'd carry on something awful when the raccoons used the patio fountain as a private bathtub. I'd vow sweet revenge every time the deer mowed the begonias in the urns by the front steps. And I'd leaf through gun catalogs every time a herd of squirrels showed up in the backyard.

OK. I'll be honest. I still think squirrels are the spawn of Satan.

I received a note this week from someone who has been trapping squirrels in his yard for a few years. His relocation efforts appear to be failing miserably, because his statistics on the number of squirrels that get caught keep climbing every year. Dramatically. He thinks "relocation" may not be the answer. I, too, favor the alternative.

But after my year of living murderously, a year spent trapping more than 50 squirrels, I see what my correspondent is up against. It's like having two weeds sprout up every time you whack one down.

My guess is squirrels have a reproductive gene that causes them to go into whoopee mode whenever the number of available companions dwindles. So by trapping and eliminating the squirrels, my fellow trappers and I may actually be contributing to the overpopulation of these sharp-toothed rodents.

The war on squirrels needs to be on a higher intellectual plane. They may have small brains, but they can outwit us humans most of the time.

A colleague here at the newspaper e-mailed me a photo taken in his yard showing a squirrel gorging itself on birdseed from -- yes, you guessed it -- another one of those squirrel-proof feeders.

In this case, a shrub near the feeder had grown tall enough to support the squirrel, which leaned over a bit for an easy feast.

I'm not going to say this is exactly what happened, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the squirrel has been fertilizing the shrub for months, encouraging the plant to grow hardy and tall. A squirrel could figure that out. I'm positive.

On the Internet I've found video of squirrels that have mastered complex roadblocks in order to reach a peanut. In order to succeed, the rodents must -- by trial-and-error and keen observation -- figure out how to master mazes, go through spiraling tubes, jump on latches that open doors and trigger locks protecting the peanut. All this usually takes less than a few hours.

If the barriers are switched or changed, or if new impediments are added, squirrels size up the situation and head straight for their snack.

Two things:

First, I'd like to see science find a way to adapt whatever it is that makes squirrels multiply to grow more food for the world. Not that I want everyone to switch to squirrel fritters, but use whatever genetic code it is that makes their numbers explode like popcorn.

Second, I'd like to see science find a way to adapt whatever it is in a squirrel's brain that would make us humans able to master some of the complex situations we face every day. I'm not particularly interested in getting to a peanut, but I would like to be able to actually use all the remotes in our entertainment center.

And I'd like my ire back. I miss it. That's what I want: to be smart and cranky enough to fuss about potholes. Is that too much to ask?

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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