Up early, I went outdoors to fill bird feeders and spread some seeds for the chattering blue jays. Temps were predicted to cool down after today, returning us to our natural cold, lows even dipping below zero. Gray squirrels waited in the trees until I put fresh peanuts in their munch box. Then, one by one, they came to the box, each grabbing two peanuts to jam into their mouths, then scurried away to bury their loot.
As the sun rises above the tree line, these days around 8 a.m., long shadows fall on to the snowy forest floor. A squirrel on the other side of the river was moving through the shadows trying to come to the Keese Mills Road animal diner. He was fast, darting back and forth within view of the deck. He raced over a fallen limb to get to the island in the middle of the river. He was only 15 feet from where I sat and kept racing from one side of the islet to the other, staring intently at his goal, trying to imagine his way to my yard in spite of the racing waters.
He would approach the closest spot to my bank, twitch back and forth, considering the length of the potential swim, then, backed up to race down to the end of the island again. I was watching this wild animal thinking with its body, trying to figure a way across the water. This furry creature was stuck at what looked like a dead end, and he was hungry, eying the seeds so close, yet so far away. Had he forgotten the fallen limb? His way back to the other side? He couldn't possibly be stuck there, could he?
Animal roll call
On my side, for the first time since deep winter began, a scraggly chipmunk came up for air. It almost seemed as though he was rubbing the sleep from his eyes, as startled as he looked approaching the late February seeds. Blue jays gently landed on apple tree branches, gliding toward a mouthful of food on the railing, then gliding back to a perch in the trees where they pecked open the seeds, ate the inner kernel, dropped the seed cover, then started all over again.
The ragged chipmunk gathered a huge mouthful of seeds, then ran back toward his little hole in the ground. He was happy to find the goods, but he really wasn't ready to be outdoors for any length of time. Only a few days left in February, and the very first signs of a changing season now begin.
Over on the island, the squirrel had used up his energy trying to find a way to my backyard. I watched him finally climb a tree, and leap from its tallest branches back to the far side of the river. He ran up and down the riverbank, still trying to find his way to me. He was stymied.
What I learned
I learned about the two universals, determination and frustration, just by watching that little gray mammal. First and foremost, I see the simplicity of trying a direct route to your goal. Just try. See if you can imagine how to get from Point A to Point B. If not, go to Plan B. If you don't have a Plan B, get one.
Once you get closer to the goal, like being on the island within sight of the seeds, you need to explore the new options. Are you better off where you are, surrounded by moving water? Can getting closer to the shore give you a new perspective, one that can help you cross the river? Do you need to retreat and try something new? If you are really hungry, really really hungry, can that dam up your ability to think clearly and remember how to get to the other side?
I watched that squirrel running in the snow covered undergrowth, and then he was gone. Within 10 minutes, he was right here, right on the porch, eating seeds. If he were a person I would have seen the flushed cheeks of victory. But this fellow, following his own determination, found his reward at this busy feeding station, using his own skills. He had learned that the path to this port was not within sight of it, and he needed to trust the mere act of crossing the river as the missing step to his goal.
He stayed for a while, ate seeds and peanuts, then darted off into his wintery world. I know he'll get cold again before this season is over. I know a lot of my backyard wildlife will get cold and maybe bedraggled as we await some cheery signs of spring. But if we aim toward our goals in spite of the cold, in spite of the frustrations of obstacles like racing rivers and dead end islands, we will be able to succeed.
It's those extra minutes of daylight, the feeling of warm rays of sunlight on the face, the sense that the back of winter has been broken-all contributing to our sense of yes-we-can. We all do this surviving, this endurance, this welcoming of what comes next. We are Adirondackers, after all, and as we show year after year in late February and March, we can sometimes see our way through to spring, to the color green and everything that green brings.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.