The coevolved relationships of arboreal rodents, such as red and gray squirrels, and trees, such as shagbark hickories, are fine examples of mutually beneficial, interspecific associations in the Northeast Forests. The squirrels, who are said to retrieve only a third of the nuts they bury, obtain both food and shelter from the magnificent trees. At the same time, by dispersing and, in the case of the grey squirrels, actually planting the tree seeds, the animals help insure that there will be new generations of trees springing up within the forests.
It’s so important that youngsters begin to appreciate, even at an early age, the positive interactions and networks that create the environments / landscapes in which they live. In-depth knowledge of the amazing and complex lives of particular species adds texture, color, and valence to students’ later, abstract appreciation of ecological principles.
A granular understanding of the life cycles of the fragrant hickories and the insouciant, ever-present squirrels (including an acquaintance with squirrels’ charming appearance as infants, their play-filled childhoods, and the devoted care they receive from their mothers; an awareness of the squirrels’ dependence upon hickories for safety, food, and various types of homes): all this can help human children begin to empathize with these gifted creatures – their more-than-human neighbors. Such information is also well-suited to the cognitive tendencies of human youngsters under age eleven or twelve. Learning about these creatures’ actual lives enables the children to recognize their kinship with these their non-human neighbors, an insight that domestic pets can also communicate very profoundly. Learning in pleasant and creative ways about how the red squirrels and shagbark hickories actually interact, grow, change, and confront challenges can potentially help young people become more responsible and aware participants within their Earth Community (borrowing here Thomas Berry’s phrase for the sacred, natural world in which we are all always enmeshed and enfolded.)
How do we pass along such perceptions? There are many ways. Modeling respectful, appreciative interactions with such beings is foundational. We also recommend first hand observations (at school ‘bird’ feeders as well as in backyards and nature centers), reading (not only scientifically accurate natural histories but also literature including stories, legends, and poems), viewing films, discussions, art-making, playing games (such as the “Squirrels and Hickories” game described in the Games pdf – intended for publication on this website in late 2019), and learning by means of carefully-drawn take-home pages such as the one offered here. These are just a few of the many ways that we can help introduce young people to the importance of the non-human citizens of this beautiful bioregion, not only as names and images but as lively, self-directed beings with complex and intriguing interconnections, life stories, and agendas.
Here’s the PDF: Squirrels and Hickories 2018 EB