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Column: What would we do without squirrels? Well ...

WORTHINGTON — There is a squirrel in the ash tree out front that has a stripe of black fur down the middle of its back and on along the length of its tail. The black stripe on the squirrel is not quite as distinct as the white stripe on a skunk, but there is no mistaking it.

Longtime Daily Globe readers will remember L.J. Willet of Jackson. L.J. easily has the local record for most letters to the editor. Through some weeks L.J. had a letter, or at least a note or a quip, every day.

L.J. invited me to Jackson one time; he wanted to make sure I knew all of Jackson’s wonders and landmarks. We spent a couple of hours driving around, and it was a lot of fun. We went not only to the things obvious — the Spirit Lake massacre monument — but we stopped briefly in front of one house or another to learn that this was where the CEO of JC Penney grew up, or CEO of Standard Oil. Whatever. The thing I discovered and never forgot was that at Jackson in that time there were only gray squirrels. That surprised me. At Worthington we always have had only red squirrels, or fox squirrels. Somewhere in that 30 miles between Jackson and Worthington, there is a gravel road or a creek or a fence line where grey squirrels end and red squirrels begin.

I asked L.J. what he thought about this. He didn’t know. There may have been squirrels on the site of Jackson from the beginning of settlement. For as long as anyone knows, there have been trees along the banks of the Des Moines River. There may have been squirrels, Jackson or no Jackson.

Worthington, of course, is a different story. Worthington was long grass prairie without a tree (or a walnut) in sight when Gen. Judson Bishop rolled through the site charting the route of the railroad. Certainly there would be no squirrels. We have to guess that one day someone who felt life was not worth living without squirrels came to Worthington with a box of squirrels or a cage of squirrels trapped perhaps at Minneapolis or Winona and turned them loose in Chautauqua Park. Or somewhere. Red squirrels or fox squirrels.

I will tell you the truth: I don’t know the difference between squirrels because I never have paid them much attention, and I really don’t like them. You would not have caught me coming to town with a gunny sack full of squirming, long-tailed creatures. I don’t like squirrels for a couple of reasons.

I used to feed birds, but I never found a place in sight of my windows where I could hang a feeder that squirrels would not get into. My last effort was a steel fence post about six feet high. I guessed squirrels can’t climb skinny steel posts. Well they can, and they do. They shimmy up a post as easily as if it were a tree.

The second reason I don’t like squirrels is that I do like potted plants out the door through the spring and summer. Geraniums or hibiscus, maybe a mass of petunias. Squirrels won’t leave these alone, of course, especially in the fall. They dig in the flower pots and tear up everything.

Maybe you guess, at heart, I really am fond of squirrels. Wrong. I think of squirrels as tree rats, and I will tell you why. If you were to shave the long fur from a squirrel’s tail you would have a rat — a rodent with a long, thin tail covered with a dark hide. It’s tail fur that saves squirrels — old bushy tails. I still say tree rat.

People have been trying to convert me for a great long time. In first grade Miss Rowe had me singing, “What a lot of things to see on my to school, squirrels climbing up a tree on my way to school.” In that time, I still was neutral. Miss Rowe was excited for squirrels. I thought, “Well — all right.” Now I would not object if someone rounded up the squirrels of Worthington, put them in gunny sacks and took them to Jackson.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.