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consider the squirrel
the one that got away
This is the second post in a sporadic multi-part series on hunting culture. Read the first one here.
When Elvin asked me to go squirrel hunting months ago, I had some questions; one of them being: “What does squirrel meat taste like?”
Elvin paused for a moment and said, “Nutty.” I was sold!
So began our quest to hunt squirrels in the Massachusetts back-country.
Squirrels are everywhere in cities, so I never gave them much thought. They are an urban community with their own census! They fight with sewer rats over pizza crust and scurry across telephone lines to make their 4PM call. There is likely a squirrel right behind you reading this email over your shoulder.
In the hunting world, there are those who hunt for sport, those doing it for subsistence, and those who feel like a grade-A weenie coming back empty-handed (me).
But more than anything, I’m excited by the challenge of hunting my own food (“They call it ‘huntin’ not ‘catchin’ for a reason,” Elvin says.), and squirrel seemed both exotic and familiar a food source as any.
Sure, it would taste nutty. But would I also taste the remnants of sunflower seeds it stole from my neighbor’s bird feeder? Would their meat be lean from having to outrun your undisciplined Chihuahua ? I had to find out.
Myself, Elvin, and another member of our caravan, Chaya, gathered early one morning last winter. I met Elvin in a meetup group for fellow outdoorsy folks, and he’s a legend in my eyes. He’s hunted everything: deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit. And, he regularly traps beavers when their dam-building activities disrupt drainage on private property.
No, he doesn’t eat the beavers. “It would be like eating a big swamp rat,” he says. Yum!
I like hunting with Elvin because, as a #GirlDad, he appreciates how my fresh gel manicure brings out the earth tones in my hiking boots.
That February morning, we stood in a desolate parking lot abutting a national wildlife refuge where hunting was permitted. As Elvin gave us a lay of the land, I heard leaves rustling above us, and we spotted a prized red squirrel. Just as Elvin was about to take aim, the squirrel dashed behind some branches. We shrugged it off hoping that was the first of many we’d see that morning.
We spent most of the time standing in place, watching trees for squirrel nests (large bundles of leaves high up). There’s a common phrase among hunters: “you must be in the woods long enough for animals to forget you’re there.” Otherwise, don’t expect to catch anything. The whole endeavor — sitting, watching, waiting, tracking — requires an incredible amount of voyeurism and yes, knee strength!
But the result is an astounding awareness of natural cycles and the routines of other living beings. Elvin knows what fish to expect on his fishing trips based on how high the tide is. Where I see a mess of leaves and branches he sees a distinct wildlife corridor that deer, rabbits and the like use everyday.
I’m guilty of dismissing hunters as brutish, conservatives with no interest in protecting the land they hunt on. But in reality, money generated from hunting license fees (and taxes on guns and ammunition) provides 60% of conservation funding for state wildlife agencies. While ignorant hunters exist, all the hunters I’ve met, like Elvin, have this deep sense of local ecology.
“Squirrels have exceptional eyesight, so they probably see us coming a mile away,” he said as we moved slowly along the trails. All this for a squirrel? I thought.
Yes, all this for a squirrel. Because here’s the thing: squirrels are natural problem-solvers and highly motivated creatures. Some might even call them smart. (Your fav could never do the acrobatics required to be a squirrel.)
As winter approaches, squirrels hide acorns (oak tree seeds) to eat when food becomes scarce. But they only recover 25% of the acorns they cache, the rest of which likely grow into oak trees.
PEOPLE OF EARTH: squirrels are quietly reshaping our urban canopy, one. nut. at. a. time!
As the hours passed, I began to lose hope. Not another squirrel in sight. It was below freezing and I hadn’t worn enough layers. We returned to the parking lot, and I thought about the red squirrel, whose life I was willing to take to satisfy my culinary curiosity and yes, impress my newsletter subscribers.
So often, we only think about the lives of the animals we eat when it impacts their taste. When I sampled venison from Elvin’s stash, I first remarked on its sweet, and almost fruity quality. I later learned that particular deer spent its final days feeding on apples in a nearby orchard. But my curiosity stopped there.
What if that red squirrel we saw was responsible for planting five thousand oak trees already and sustained tons of intricate life systems? How do you weigh your hunger, curiosity, excitement and whatever motivates folks to hunt, against the interconnected life of that animal? Hunting requires this impossible calculation of what lives are more and less valuable. And yet, people like Elvin do it all the time.
Squirrels aren’t endangered, but they are smart, and as much a part of our urban landscape as rats, pigeons, and household pets. So maybe you wouldn’t eat a city squirrel (surely too neurotic to taste good), but perhaps you’d enjoy a country squirrel?
In the meantime, I’ll wait for a celebrity chef to make squirrel the next fashionable game meat so I can stop pretending to like bison burgers.
I wrote about why we need rent control in Boston and beyond for The Guardian
Things I Like
I promise I’m not trying to evangelize squirrel meat, but I hear this recipe for battered squirrel wings really slaps.
There is something called “comedy wildlife photography,” and it’s amazing.