Diary of an Oak Tree: The College Park legend of Notch
I’m an observer of life, an American southern live oak tree.
Diary of an Oak Tree - The College Park legend of Notch
Diary of an Oak Tree - The College Park legend of Notch
Have you ever been alone while walking down a residential street and for no reason become convinced that you were being watched by someone or something? Maybe the feeling was so strong that the hair on the back of your neck stood up and you jerked around to see…nothing…just trees and shrubs. Maybe it was the wind, you thought, but in your heart you knew something was there. It might have been me. My actual name is Quercus Virginiana, but you can call me “Q” for short. I’m an observer of life, an American southern live oak tree. Day or night, rain or shine nothing goes unnoticed and duly recorded in one of my two hundred and twelve growth rings. I have a story to tell. I want to share one of my observations about a treetop society that lives right in your midst. It’s the legend of Notch; a College Park tree squirrel’s coming of age. But first, let me introduce you to the Eastern Grey Squirrel, Sciurus Carolinensis.
Except for birds, squirrels may be the only wildlife most urbanites see each year. They thrive on acorns, fruit, berries, and anything else they can steal from humans. Homeowners spend good money on squirrel proof bird feeders that seldom work to keep the world’s most courageous acrobatic thieves out. A squirrel proof feeder full of birdseed is a comic routine we oaks never tire of. The squirrels won’t be denied and their attempts to crack the feeder’s code are as entertaining as a circus sideshow. Orlando tree squirrels live in small communities high up under oak tree canopies in nests called dreys. Dreys are made from leaves and twigs or by modifying an old woodpecker hole. After the male and female mate they build their drey and have up to two liters a year. They can live to be 20 years old, but city squirrels only average two years because of cars. Road kill is the number one squirrel killer especially in the spring and fall when a fresh crop of young rodents wander into the streets. This unfortunate situation leads me to introduce the subject of my story, Notch, the wayward young squirrel fresh from his mother’s nest.
I have learned from watching life for over two hundred years that you never know what’s next, what might be coming around the corner. Early one spring morning I was observing the goings-on along West Winter Park Street, when I heard a ruckus in the tree tops down the street. The song birds, especially the mocking birds were sounding off about something. Trees understand bird dialect, so naturally I knew what they were saying. Now most people think that bird’s utterances are mating calls or happy songs about the sunrise, but not so. Our Creator made song birds very small for a good reason: birds are narcissists. Every morning the cardinals and mockingbirds sing self-admiration songs, ballads of their own beautiful and supremacy. Anyway, the birds were angry because the “Grey Walker,” the man dressed in grey with an odd gait had stirred them up. I know him by sight because he has walked by me every week for years. Here’s the deal, Grey Walker can talk to the birds, especially to Cardinals and Mockingbirds. As Grey
Walker strolled along, he paused from prayer and introspection to whistle an answer to the cardinals and mockingbirds’ arrogant trill. He told them that they were wrong, that this is his territory, and that he was both prettier and a better fighter. In righteous indignation they countered and by the time Grey Walker reached me they were angrily whistling and chirping over the top of each other. The neighborhood dogs thought Grey Walker’s bird bantering eerie and began to growl and bark. The result was an awful chorus. That’s when several people joined the discord and started waving and screaming from their bedroom windows. My best guess is that they became upset when the treetop choir wouldn’t harmonize and tried to take over as the music director. They started yelling things like “Stop, shaddup’, I’m trying to sleep,” and, “What the hell’s wrong with you.” Anyway, it didn’t improve the culturally diversified composition and it proved to be a loud and boisterous morning.
Meanwhile, an oblivious young squirrel appeared out of one of the side yards and was absentmindedly foraging along the sidewalk. He didn’t notice Grey Walker approaching him until they were only ten feet apart. Then the squirrel panicked and went up the closest tall object he could find, who was my live oak cousin Hoary. I knew that was a mistake when a loud commotion erupted in the heart of Hoary’s canopy. The squirrel had intruded on a pair of nesting mocking birds and their song went from a joyful noise to a raspy repetition similar to a machinegun. The situation intensified as the squirrel reappeared on an upper limb looking for a way off but he was too high. The oak wasn’t close enough to a house or privacy fence to jump so he went back in, scrambling past the nest. Unfortunately on this trip he picked up the mother mockingbird to make the fray a two on one. Round and round the tree limbs and finally down the tree trunk they came, both birds flying close enough to deliver accurate strikes on the fleeing squirrel’s head and neck.
Grey Walker stepped into the street so he could better see the four legged comedy show.
The panicked grey intruder was losing fur with each turn around the trunk. He descended to a jumpable height with both mockingbirds literally flying on his back and launched into a short but thick podocarpus hedge. His tormentors gave him no quarter and in a blur all three disappeared inside the conifer. There was a three second pause in the action, and then the whole hedge started shaking. A few seconds later the mother mockingbird reappeared and flew back to the nest and resumed her loud rat-a-tat-a-tat vocal warning. Then the other two launched out of the hedge. The squirrel made a break for it and crossed the street, ducking and dodging to lose the attacking mockingbird.
That’s when the car entered the fray. The driver was preoccupied with her cell phone, morning coffee and backseat children and she didn’t see the animal and pedestrian traffic until it was almost too late. Hot coffee and cell phones flew everywhere as the driver screeched to a stop, narrowly missing them. She sucked air through clenched teeth in anguish because the hot coffee scalded both knees and ankles. Then driver laid on the curses and car horn while the backseat boys started to wail and they all joined the ongoing neighborhood’s culturally diverse composition. They were passionate but sadly out of tune.
By then the squirrel realized that his world had turned upside down. There wasn’t a safe place for him because every tree and street had a dangerous owner. A quick U-turn bought him a three step gap and he scrambled under a parked car. The bird pulled up short and peered at the squirrel, rotating his head left and right, chattering a final warning to the bushy tailed trespasser, “That’s a mockingbird tree…never, ever climb up my oak tree again!” And on that note he flew effortlessly back to the nest to reassure his mate and hatchlings. Grey Walker regained his composure from laughing too hard and continued east along the sidewalk to home. The driver told the backseat boys to shut up as she executed a K-Turn and headed back home to change clothes. At that point in time the story lost its humor and became deadly serious.
The young grey froze in place, winded and shaken. As he caught his breath he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be here. He had disobeyed his mom and left the nest for a few minutes and somehow got lost. What a confusing world! Roadkill almost got him crossing the street. Momma squirrel told him about “Roadkill.” They were huge hard shelled, bright-eyed beasts, fast, and unyielding, thump – bump – and you’re dead! Roadkill were every squirrel’s nightmare as they killed more squirrels than all the hawks and owls put together. Before he had only seen them from a distance but today he came within just three steps from being crushed under its big round black feet. The squirrel knew nothing of urban tree life but he had already learned that every inch of College Park belonged to someone who aggressively defended their property. Out of reflex he repeated a distress cry several times, “Mom, mom, dad, dad, help, help, where are you?” Nothing…only fear and aloneness answered. However, the squirrel’s distress call did attract someone else, a large housecat…an orange tabby three times his size. The cat slipped from the corner of the house to under the car and near him in seconds, and a dialog started, “Well, look what I have here…a wayward squirrel…a trespasser…someone who doesn’t understand Dagger’s law of the street. Are you a thief, or just feebleminded?”
“Please don’t think that – I’m not – I just left mom’s nest and somehow got lost. I ducked under here to get away from angry birds and Road kill. I’m not a thief, really, I just want to go back home. Mr. Dagger, could you help me go home?”
What an easy score, he thought. “Why not, I simply live to help retards like you find their nasty little nests. Come a little closer so I can show you the way.” Dagger gaged that when he attacked the young squirrel would freeze in fear and be an easy kill.
When the naïve squirrel started toward the tabby, in a flash the cat was all over him. The squirrel quickly realized he’d been fooled. This cat was a killer and this was a fight to the death. Adrenalin surged through his muscles and he surprised Dagger by giving as well as he took as they thumped and bumped underneath the car from front to back, scratching, clawing and biting. Dagger loved to fight but this contest wasn’t going according to plan. He’d already punished the squirrel by shredding his right ear, so he paused and backed off a step or two before the bushy tailed idiot got lucky and seriously injured him. The Squirrel rattled an ugly warning as they studied each other, edging his back to a tire so all the cat could see was four claws and bared teeth. “Squirrel, I’m feeling generous today so I won’t kill you. Here’s your one and only chance. I’m going to give you a six count to get away. You need to run for your life, run far and never look back. If I catch you or ever see you again I’ll finish this fight. One”….The squirrel didn’t hesitate and took off running as fast as he could straight down the sidewalk. “Two,” he heard over his shoulder…running. “Three,” he heard faintly and he raced further down the sidewalk and out of sight, to what or where didn’t matter. He had gotten away from Dagger alive! Dagger stretched and yawned as he watched the squirrel run out of sight at the far end of his block. Funny, he thought as he sauntered to the back door, he actually didn’t look back, not even once. Then Dagger decided that this fight never happened. A pointless dream just woke me up from a nap! No furry rodent has ever got away from me alive.
For small creatures like squirrels that live their entire life in an area the size of a city block, migrating almost a mile is an epic journey that few try and fewer survive. However, fate was kind that morning to the bloody little squirrel. He crossed a dozen streets without getting run over, and then worked his way through a couple of yards to a Lake Shore. He had never seen anything that large and to him it was breathtaking. The day was getting long and the squirrel knew he wouldn’t survive being caught out in the open after sundown so he kept going regardless of wondrous sights, or his wounds and fatigue. He bounced along the shoreline until he found a stand of unoccupied live oak trees not far from the water’s edge. He could tell that other squirrels had lived there before, and guessed that predators and Roadkill had killed all of them that didn’t migrate to another area. Anyway it was his now. He had survived and found a new home with adequate forage. He made a sturdy drey up high in an old woodpecker hole, well hidden from the eyes of hawks and owls and safe from ground predators.
As spring turned to summer, he made friends with the tree top community (neighborhood of tree dwelling birds and animals.) They told him that his new lake home was called Adair. The grackles said that Adair was a woman’s name from a hundred years ago. However most of the tree top community never believed much of what the grackles had to say so it remained a topic of debate. The mockingbirds and cardinals told many dark stories of Dagger. They claimed that he was the worst College Park killer and no feathered friend or squirrel had ever survived an encounter with him. They said that Dagger had even killed two cats for trespassing. The young squirrel recovered from his wounds and grew quite large for a tree squirrel, but he carried a permanent token of Dagger’s sharp claws. The end of his right ear was split wide open like a tree fork. Thus he became known as “Notch.” Notch’s friends never grew tired of retelling the stories of the Notch-Dagger fight, his Roadkill near miss, and his journey around the length of Lake Adair to a new home with them. Notch grew to like his name and reputation, which spread from tree to tree throughout the area. His split ear was a badge of honor, his proof that when he lived far away past the lake and road kill lanes, he had fought Dagger the feared Tabby to a draw and lived to walk away. So the legend of Notch began!
© Copyright June 2013 James Cressler