Picture it and Write: Tree Rats

by joetwo

Hi there. This is my offering for this week’s picture it and write from Ermilia’s blog here. Once again the picture is not mine, I only use it for inspiration. Anyway, enjoy.

Tree Rats

My grandfather, Aloysius, hated squirrels, he called them Tree Rats, more than any other animal pest that he would encounter on his land. “Not the red ones” he would say “The little grey bastards. The ones from America.”

His land was mainly in forestry, hardwood oaks mostly, a long term investment. Since he had retired Grandfather had very little to do with his time other than care for them. When I would stay over in his house I would be woken in the morning to the sound of shotgun fire from the forest. When I was having my breakfast, Grandfather would come in with at least a half-dozen squirrels in a cloth bag.

Depending on his mood, he would either had the bag to Grandmother, who would then cook them for dinner, or throw the bodies into the Aga where they would be completely incinerated. When cooked, squirrel is surprisingly tasty. It’s gamy flavor was something I quickly came to associate with my holidays in the country.

For all I liked it. My uncle Kevin, or more like it, his wife Jewel thought the idea was barbaric. Uncle Kevin had met Jewel somewhere in England and they had developed very strongly held but quite vague new-age beliefs. “Meat”, Aunt Jewel would tell my parents, “is the upmost in barbaric cruelty. If you kill an animal for any reason you are lesser as a person.” Such was their objection that even Grandfather Aloysius, not a man to be easily swayed, would hold back the squirrel hunts when they were present.

Whatever their beliefs, by the laws of the Land, Uncle Kevin, by virtue of his age, was still Heir, and when Grandfather and Grandmother both shed their mortal coils, he inherited the land and the forest that came with it.

They decided to put the land to work. Most of the unused pasture was converted to fruit trees and bushes. They had the idea of making organic fruits and jams to sell in the city. Not entirely misguided to be sure but they did have some problems from the get go.

For one thing they did not countenance keeping beehives to pollinate the fruit trees. “Why should we enslave our fellow creatures so that we may gain money?” Meaning half the trees did not bear fruit the first year. Bumble bee nests placed around the land helped the next year but it was took years before things started to work properly. That was when things went sour.

One of the first things that the neighbors noticed when my uncle and aunt moved in was that the morning sound of gunfire no longer woke them from their beds. Uncle Kevin and Aunt Jewel both decided to never allow another squirrel to be hurt on their land. Instead there were rumors, probably fanciful, of Aunt Jewel being spotted walking through the trees naked talking to the squirrels, even feeding them if they came close.

Needless to say, the squirrels did very well out of this arrangement soon there were hundreds of them, scurrying around, in both the forest and the orchard.

This was where my aunt and uncle found out why grandfather had such a vendetta against those ‘tree rats’. You see, the grey squirrel is not native, it is not built for the Irish countryside and as such causes problems when their numbers are allowed to grow too big. They damage trees by gnawing at new buds and by stripping bark and they also attack fruits before they are ready to be harvested.

The results were inevitable. With the squirrel population booming. The little rodents took their toll on both the old oak trees and on the new fruit trees. The cost of constantly replacing what was lost as well as the well-intentioned but impractical measures that they insisted on first trying to prevent squirrel damage made my Aunt and Uncle’s new life increasingly unviable.

In the end Uncle Kevin got so angry as he watched one running brazenly with a bushel of unripe cherries in it’s mouth that he grabbed Grandfather’s gun from the cupboard and with a shout of “Tree Rat!” sent the squirrel to meet its maker.

It may have been unseemly, but it was effective. The losses to fruit and tree slowly reduced to nothing.

Aunt Jewel insisted for a while that the ‘Sacrifice of the noble squirrel’ be recognized by  giving each animal a proper burial. But the thing is, there were a lot of squirrels to be shot and when you think about it. To kill an animal and then not use its whole body, that would have just been wrong.

Wouldn’t it?