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Scenes from the Jungles of Emmitsburg

Bill Meredith

"It’s a jungle out there."
Randy Newman, "Monk Theme Song."

"He who fights and runs away/ lives to fight another day."
…Oliver Goldsmith, who probably pinched it from Tacitus, who was probably paraphrasing Demosthenes….

(June, 2014) If I watch from the kitchen window in the morning or from the porch swing after supper, at some point a rabbit will appear. It is a female, and as rabbits go, she is old; the fur on her sides is turning gray. She has nested in the small jungle that I call my front yard for at least four years, eluding the cats, dogs, foxes, hawks, owls, teen-aged drivers, lawnmowers and blood-sucking parasites that kill most of her kind before they are a year old. Last year she nested in the patch of ferns by my garage; I haven’t pinpointed her nest yet this year, but it is somewhere under the juniper shrubs on the bank in front of the house. She comes morning and evening to nurse her litter of five or six babies; the rest of the time, she stays away, to keep from attracting predators to the nest. If luck continues to smile on her, she will produce another four or five litters of young this summer, averaging a half-dozen each.

Using these average numbers, if all of her offspring survived, she would have produced over 100 descendants in the four years I have known her; but of course they didn’t. The rabbit population will remain stable if only two survive to replace her and her mate in the next generation; the rest will slip into the anonymity of the food chain that sustains the diversity of the ecosystem. So it is, and always has been. It’s a jungle out there.

Ideally, an ecologist should stay impartial and observe the jungle without getting involved in it personally, but sometimes that’s hard to do. I was standing in the yard one morning a month or so ago, contemplating the first blossoms on our rhododendron bush, when a large yellow and black insect buzzed by. My eyes aren’t as quick as they used to be, and at first I thought it was a bumblebee; but when it stopped and faced me, hovering in mid-air, I saw that it was a carpenter bee. My first instinct was to head for the garage and start rummaging for a can of Raid, but I had a cup of coffee in my hand and the sun felt good on my back, so I just stood there and watched.

The bee began darting back and forth above the bushes, stopping to hover here and there, and occasionally darting down into a flower; but it was not after nectar. It is a predator, relentless as any hawk or wolf, and while I watched it captured several flies and other small insects and ate them on the wing. It was storing up energy for egg-laying, and I knew that within a few days it would be boring holes in the wood above my garage door where it will make its nest. I can’t just stand by and let that happen. I live in this jungle too, and I have to defend my territory.

In the mid-1700s the Swedish biologist, Karl von Linne (aka. Linnaeus), set out to classify all plants and animals, and collectors were encouraged to send him specimens from all over the world. Someone in South Carolina sent him the skeleton and skin of chipmunk, and he gave it the Latinized name, Tamias striatus. The species name, striatus, was obvious enough… it means "striped" in Latin… but the genus name, Tamias, requires an explanation. Apparently the original collector included some sketchy notes that said the little creature dug tunnels and filled them with seeds, on which it lived in the winter; and for that reason, Linnaeus selected the Greek word, Tamias, which means "steward" or "housekeeper." It was a good choice, for it describes exactly what has been going on in my yard.

A chipmunk appeared at my bird feeder last fall, and until bad weather arrived it entertained me each morning by stealing sunflower seeds. It would cram seeds into its cheek pouches until it looked like a bad case of mumps, and then dash off to the tunnel it had dug under the front walk. Evidently it filled the available space in that tunnel, for as weeks went by it proceeded to dig at least five more, scattered strategically around the yard and driveway. It stayed in the one under the walk all winter; it plugged the entrance with dead leaves, and slept comfortably there for weeks at a time when the area was covered with snow. Between snowstorms, when the snow melted I would sometimes find the dead leaves pushed aside where it had come out to look around, and in one case it left tracks in a light snow; but mostly it stayed indoors, probably with its mate.

When the last snow finally melted, the chipmunk(s) moved from the hole under the walk to another one in the flowerbed by the driveway, where they probably have started a family by now. For the past month, while I watched from the breakfast table, it has scurried busily about, sometimes picking up sunflower seeds, or on other errands; but one day last week its behavior changed. It was in the middle of the driveway, and it would sit still for a minute, then dart forward toward the flowerbed, then leap sideways and back away. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, so I got my cane and went out to the rescue.

Sure enough, there in the flowerbed was a blacksnake; the chipmunk had been trying to distract its attention from the nearby tunnel, and he darted away as I approached. A light rain was falling and it was chilly, so the snake made no resistance when I pinned its head down with the cane and picked it up. In a friendly manner, it wrapped around my arm, snuggling close to warm itself. I wanted to offer it the hospitality of our warm kitchen until the rain stopped, but my wife demurred, so I took it down in the woods behind the house and set it free.

It is hard to avoid being anthropomorphic about things like that. The children of my generation heard "The Tales of Peter Rabbit" and "The Wind in the Willows" at bedtime; today’s parents can choose from "Chester Chipmunk’s first day at school" or hundreds of other titles advertised on the internet. Such stories have value; most of them have a moral to tell, and they got me interested in reading early on. I don’t think it hurt me to believe animals talked to each other and shared human values when I was three, and when small friends come to visit I will show them the chipmunks home and tell them its name is "Tammy." But if I had continued to believe things like that after I grew up, I never would have understood the real inhabitants of the natural world.

The brave chipmunk valiantly defending his home and family makes a nice image in the mind, but the real jungle is not like that. The chipmunk was not reciting Oliver Goldsmith’s verse as he faced the blacksnake; he was doing by instinct what his ancestors had learned when facing snakes 60 million years ago. It was one of the principles of survival of the fittest long before Demosthenes first quoted it. And here in the jungles of Emmitsburg, it still applies.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith