The Village Idiot: Being Prepared

By John Hopkins

I never thought animals so small could make me feel so inadequate, but they did. Many mornings this past August I would settle on the deck with my coffee and book and enjoy the pleasant weather, wiling away the time without a care in the world. And then I would spot them – squirrels or chipmunks rushing about the yard, collecting sticks, leaves or branches from the ground as they prepared their winter shelter or perhaps accumulating food reserves to store underground.

These creatures weren’t enjoying a lazy summer morning like I was. They were hard at work preparing for the coming cold. They weren’t stopping to take in a spectacular summer setting. No, they were on the job.

It wasn’t like I didn’t have jobs that needed doing as part of my own winter preparation. There was the wood to be ordered and delivered, and when it arrived, it needed to be stacked. There was always yard clean-up work to be done. As summer turned into fall there was patio furniture to be stored, winter boots, coats and shovels to be retrieved from the shed, and snow tires to go on the car.

I thought about some of these things as I sat with my coffee and book, but I was not motivated to spring into action, despite the hustle and bustle of industry taking place all around my yard. I always managed to justify a delay in beginning my winter preparations.

One particularly ambitious chipmunk was a great fascination to Nancy and I. From a very early point in the summer he had begun a long process of moving dirt and rocks from a spot in the back yard and hollowed out a cozy-looking winter home in the earth. It was a long process and by no means a simple task. We were quite impressed with how he had managed to move some of the rock away – he was definitely a small animal that dreamt big.

It made me wonder if animals have any capacity to procrastinate, or if that is solely a human curse. While all his buddies were scurrying around making their winter preparations last August, was there a squirrel sitting somewhere up in a tree, enjoying the view and munching on a few nuts, thinking to himself, “I really should start getting that winter burrow ready and saving some of this food, but it’s only Monday and I have all week.”

I would be that squirrel.

For a long time I thought the chipmunks and squirrels were oblivious to my presence as they scuttled around, not wanting to be distracted. But then I noticed that the chipmunk who had been building the fancy underground condo started giving me a bit of a look, that sort of disdainful look you get from someone who clearly feels they are pulling more than their fair share of the load and you are somehow falling down on the job. I daresay he turned up his nose at me a couple of times.

Well, if there’s one thing for sure, I’m not about to be shown up by a chipmunk. So I finally sprang into action – stacking wood, storing furniture, getting all my winter gear ready for the coming dark days. And it felt good. I had a sense of usefulness and productivity.

When I lived in the city, winter preparation always seemed to be a minor consideration. As long as the furnace still worked, heat was not really an issue. Roads always seemed to be plowed, so there was never much need for snow tires. And most days you could get by without boots depending on where your travels took you.

Indeed, in the city I always found very little contrast between the seasons. Summer eased into fall, fall into winter, winter into spring, and then summer would roll around again. Apart from the hours of daylight and the swings of the temperature, the differences didn’t seem that pronounced.

Out here, however, the seasonal shifts seem that much more stark. Things like a warm house and easy travel to and from work can’t be taken for granted without the proper preparations. The tone of nature changes as the seasons do as well. The animal bustle of late summer and fall recedes as the days get shorter, the temperatures drop and those once busy creatures settle in for a quiet winter. You can sense the change in the activity level. Those quiet, still mid-winter days are so calm and peaceful for a reason.

When you’re out in the country you have to think more like the animals and take their cues. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure my chipmunk friend wasn’t so much as turning up his nose at me as trying to offer some friendly advice; making sure I noticed his example and followed it.

Thanks for the tip little guy and have a nice warm winter in your underground condo. I’ll see you in the spring.