Perhaps, with the help of our friends the squirrels, we might better understand our own deep connection to the seasons of the earth and our natural affinity with whatever foods are in season and the wondrous, delicate balance of the cosmic order.
In recent years, in my part of the world, a fascinating, but tragic evolutionary drama has been unfolding. Indeed, it may well be playing out at a park near you this autumn—-this particular drama is the Battle of the Greys and the Reds!
In Ireland, the red squirrel is our much-loved native species, which evolved over the millenia within the eco-system of our island. Reds are beautiful, petite, timid, chestnut creatures with perfectly-coiffed bushy tails, who blend in with the bark of our trees and the red hues of our autumn leaves.
They existed in harmony with their native environment
until the arrival of their ugly relative, the larger, ruder more
aggressive grey squirrel, which was foolishly brought to this country by
the owners of the Castleforbes estate in Co. Longford, Ireland, in
In less than a century, the handful of original Greys have produced so many progeny that they now outnumber the Reds in many areas and are threatening them with extinction. The slow process of evolution could not have factored in the sudden penchant of the Castleforbes family for the grey-coloured creatures.
The gradual, but perfect process of evolution, had honed the Red to suit its environment, just as it was simultaneously honing everything in that environment to suit the red squirrel in the intricate, mutually-dependent web of creation.
Part of this web was the fine-tuning of the digestive metabolism of the native Red, to the food it was likely to encounter of an Irish autumn, when it most needed to stock up for the cold months ahead. October is when hazelnuts ripen in Ireland and every year, our native Reds scurry about collecting them, because then, and only then, are they edible. Before October, they are still green and hard and indigestible—-unless of course you are a big Grey!
The greys like to get a head start over the reds, because their digestive system enables them to eat unripe hazelnuts, which they gobble up so quickly, that by October, there are almost none left to ripen for the Reds, who wait in vain for their winter’s horde.
The red squirrel is now in danger of
extinction because it cannot adjust, within an evolutionary second, to
this new dispensation. We are no different to these creatures, in that
our digestive systems are also finely tuned to what is native and
seasonal to our environment.