When it comes to dandelions, definition is everything.
People who consider them “weeds” seem to experience even one perky, yellow flower blooming in their yard as a personal affront. They respond to the familiar harbinger of spring with corn gluten, digging tools or half-used bags of Weed-B-Gon left over from previous years’ battles, and have been known to curse when they stumble across an aging flower sending its puffs of seed off into the wind.
Others see them as wildflowers, sturdy little delights meant to serve as the season’s first bouquets. Some folks call them dinner and can’t wait to boil up the young, tender greens to serve alongside a slice of ham and a slab of cornbread. Old-fashioned sorts still bottle a sweet, light wine made from the flowers but for me, plump, yellow dandelion blossoms mean only one thing — reliving The Year The Squirrel Went Crazy.
Anyone who’s rescued and raised a squirrel has tales to tell – especially when the relationship lasts as long as eight years. Inevitably, a squirrel in the house means pecans buried in the bedsheets, gnawed furniture and scratched limbs – human or otherwise. It means feeding a nice, balanced diet to keep those eyes bright and the tail fluffy, and it means a freezer full of acorns, fresh fungi in season, a full complement of assorted greens and an occasional bit of orange popsicle before bed to keep everyone happy. As every squirrel caretaker knows, if The Squirrel’s not happy, nobody’s happy.
About mid-January in The Squirrel’s fifth year, it became apparent that The Squirrel wasn’t happy. None of his usual diversions seemed to interest him. He stopped lying atop the front door, scanning the foot traffic in the streets. He stopped dragging around his tennis-ball-in-a-sock, or demanding ear-scratches. He even stopped watching Letterman and begging for his popsicle.
At first I assumed creeping age was slowing him down, causing him to become a little crotchety. Then, he became a lot crotchety. The same critter who’d loved draping himself across someone’s shoulders and nuzzling their ear suddenly took to flying off the refrigerator, grabbing hold of unfortunate passers-by and biting their ears. He scolded everything that moved, and started chasing the bird. His silent, malevolent glare took on a certain intensity. Anyone who experienced it could be forgiven their shiver of fear, or their belief that a two-pound squirrel was intending to take over the house by force.
Eventually, after experiencing one of his fits of particularly bad temper, I snapped back at him. He ran to a back bedroom that doubled as an office and scooted straight into the closet, burrowing down among the hiking boots and coolers. That’s where I found him, digging into a plastic bag. A strange but pleasant odor, rather like a brewery, permeated the closet.
Puzzled, I pulled the bag open, realizing as I did that The Squirrel had discovered a bag of mesquite beans. Like so many souvenirs, they’d been collected and carried back from the country, and promptly forgotten. Thanks to their high sugar content and perfect conditions, the beans had fermented. My furry little darling was flying high on a South Texas version of home-brew, called atole by those who mean to produce it.
Even unfermented mesquite beans appeal to cattle, horses and goats as well as to an assortment of wild creatures. When the beans ferment in the wild, cattle who’ve sampled them will do their best to keep bellying up to the bar. In the case of my no-longer-free-range squirrel, closing the bar was easy. Getting him clean and sober required a little more effort. It took over a week for the effects of the beans to wear off, and during that week he was a mean drunk – belligerent, contemptuous and confrontational.
Unpredictably aggressive, he engaged in fits of foot-stomping rage. He became particularly fond of jumping up onto a bar near the kitchen, taking the phone cord in his teeth and daring someone to do something about it. Told “NO!” by one of his humans, our previously sweet little woodland creature would curl his forepaws into fists, stomp his little feet on the bar and chatter away, acting for all the world like a two-year old throwing a tantrum.
Eventually, his behavior began to change and the aggressiveness ended. Still, he seemed lethargic, uninterested in life, not quite the same critter he was before he went on his bender. We tried tempting him with all of his favorites, but nothing seemed to appeal. He slept a good bit, stopped asking to have his ears rubbed and moped around in his log house. Despite our concern, the Squirrel Gurus counseled patience and so, through the rest of January and through February, we waited.
Finally, in March, it happened. The sun rose higher in the sky, the grass began to green and the first dandelion appeared in the yard. Hopeful, I plucked and washed it and carried it to The Squirrel’s cage, where he still was sleeping in his log. Opening the door and rapping on his house, I heard a rustle, and then a tiny face appeared. When he saw the dandelion, it took only a few seconds for him to hop out and sit up on his feeding log, where he waited for his treat. Once he had it in his paws, he sampled a petal or two, nibbled on a leaf and then, as neatly as you please, bit off the end of the stem. As the sap began to collect at the bottom, he lapped up the drops with his tiny tongue, acting for all the world like any oenophile sampling a particularly fine wine.
I kept the dandelions coming, and within days he was back to his usual self, hanging out on top of the door and hiding pecans in my shoes. Was it the dandelion that made him happy? The coming of Spring? The simple passage of time? There’s no way to know. Perhaps in the end it was a combination of all three, but it hardly mattered. The Dandelion Gods were back in their heaven, and all was right with the world for one previously miserable squirrel.
Today, looking around on this soft, early spring afternoon, enjoying the already-blooming dandelions and watching the beginning of growth on the mesquite, I take enormous pleasure in remembering my sweet, funny squirrel. Of course, I also remember my belligerent, mesquite-bean-crazed squirrel and I can’t help wondering about the people I see around me who behave precisely as he did.
“What have they gotten into?” I wonder. “What has so affected them? What could have warped their world view so badly that life has been reduced to a clenched-jaw, foot-stomping rage?”
I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s spring. Soon the mesquite will be blooming, just as the dandelions are blossoming now, and the cycle will continue. Someone out in West Texas will give atole a try, and vinters around the state will bottle wild cherry, agarita and rhubarb. They’ll all be good, no doubt about that. But if someone gives me a choice, I’m taking the dandelion wine.