By Waverly Fitzgerald
When we first arrived at the Zumwalt Prairie, we scattered into the grass field behind the buildings to seek places to set up our tents. I trod on their paths without realizing it, foolishly believing that I was following in the footsteps of my fellow writers who had trampled down the grass while searching for their own home ground. Only gradually did I realize that these narrow trails of trampled grass, much more narrow than a human footfall, were the paths of the ground squirrels. They criss-crossed the grass, weaving among tufts and seeming to swerve dangerously close to the huge dark holes and heaped-up dirt piles I thought were the lair of a badger. Every path led to a small hole and then to another one so that a ground squirrel, racing through the grass, could dart quickly into a burrow if a redtail hawk soared overhead.
On that first night, I crawled into my tent and zipped the fly shut and shed my day clothes and shrugged into my night clothes and slithered into my sleeping bag. And then I heard an angry chirping and chittering that seemed to come from directly underneath my tent. It seemed clear it was an angry ground squirrel on top of whose home I had placed my temporary home. I was being scolded.
That night I dreamed I woke up and the tent was filled with animals. A weasel-like creature was curled up in my arms. None of the animals were the least bit threatening. It was if we had all sought shelter together and given the intensity of the lighting storm that night, perhaps it was true. I never heard the ground squirrel again. She must have moved to temporary quarters of her own. But I felt I had been given permission to make this spot my burrow.
Ground Squirrel Farewell
Naturalist Jan Hohmann, our guide to the Prairie, taught us the correct name for our fellow dwellers in the field: the Belding ground squirrel. The reference book on mammals had little to add: a few statistics about their average height and weight, the dates when they reproduced (April) and hibernated (when the grass turns yellow) and their natural predators: many: rattlesnakes, birds of prey, badgers, coyotes, and black-footed ferrets. The description ended: “of little economic importance.”
On our last morning on the Zumwalt, I broke down my temporary home. I packed up the tent, the rain fly, my sleeping bag, my pillow, and the lantern. But I wanted to let the ground tarp dry a little before rolling it up, so I spread it out in the sun. I sat on my duffel bag, looking at the pattern left in the grass by my tent. As I sat there, still sleepy in the morning sun, a ground squirrel emerged from a hole about one foot away. I wondered if this was the squirrel I had displaced.
We both froze. We stared at each other for a while. Then she decided I was not a threat and began nibbling the grass around her. I imagined that we engaged in an unspoken conversation in which I thanked her for the accommodations and apologized for the disruption. And then, as if she has spoken to me, I realized that we had provided a service in return. While we camped among the ground squirrels, we had protected them from the soaring birds of prey, from the badger that Kelly saw shambling along the fence line on the first day, from the coyotes who came so close to our camp on that final night, yipping and squealing.
After I returned to Seattle and my permanent home, I read several articles that satisfied my curiosity about Belding ground squirrels. One study described them as a keystone species, because they are the main source of food for the other animals of the prairie. I don’t believe the ground squirrels view their lives that way.