The Parable of the Squirrel-Planted Pumpkins

Pecans were a cash crop for my grandparents, who supplemented their unreliable farm income in any way they could. My grandfather drove the school bus. My grandmother taught math. Unlike peanuts, the farm’s primary crop, pecans required no planting and almost no care, and they paid out every year so long as someone picked them up before the squirrels got there first. That’s where my siblings and cousins and I came in.

I was astonishingly old before I learned that pumpkins are food. It would never have occurred to my grandmother to put a pumpkin pie on her Thanksgiving table. In the Lower Alabama of my youth, fall celebrations meant pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream. Pumpkins were for jack-o’-lanterns.

That all changed thanks to the squirrels in South Carolina. The first year I was in graduate school there, a vine with large, squash-like leaves popped up in my raised beds. I was new enough to gardening to think it might be some variety of watermelon, so I let it stay. The vine produced great yellow flowers, which intoxicated the bees, and in due time the flowers shriveled and fell off, revealing a bumper crop of round green fruits. Sugar babies!

Alas, no. They were no kind of watermelon, much less the treasured sugar baby. They were small, dense, pie pumpkins, apparently planted by the neighborhood squirrels. One Saturday I sent a whole pie home with every member of my writers’ group and still had enough pies left over for my neighbors.

Fast forward to 2021, when pumpkins of all sizes and varieties started appearing on Nashville porch railings, piling up beside front doors, cascading down brick steps. It looked as though a drunk giant had been staggering around suburbia all night, vomiting pumpkins.

This, I learned, is what happens when decorative trends from the cozy-sweater region of the country reach the sleeveless-blouse region of the country. Behold the autumnal porchscapes of New England, shaded by Tennessee trees still green with summer!

Porch décor is not a big priority at this house — now that our children are grown, my husband and I don’t even get around to carving a jack-o’-lantern most years — so I didn’t give the porchscapes a lot of thought until holiday decorations began to replace them. On garbage day the curbside bins were suddenly overflowing with pumpkins, and I hated to see all that food going to waste.

I have reached the age of caring not a whit whether people think I’ve lost my mind. I liberated as many of those garbage-can pumpkins as I could carry and set them in the scraggly area at the back of our lot. Except for planting native trees and shrubs, it’s never a good idea to feed wild animals, but I made an exception for the porchscape pumpkins. In a hungry time, a lot of creatures love a pumpkin — not just squirrels and chipmunks but also raccoons and opossums and skunks, foxes and coyotes, even turtles and a fair number of birds.

Which is why, when the porchscape pumpkins reappeared last year, I mentioned in our neighborhood WhatsApp thread that our wild neighbors would appreciate the leftovers once pumpkin season was over. I thought I was gently suggesting that each family could save their discarded pumpkins for their own other-than-human neighbors to enjoy.

Then pumpkins started arriving every day on the bench beside our Little Free Library as my sweet neighbors delivered donations to the wildlife sanctuary that is our half-acre lot. I moved the pumpkins to the backyard as quickly as I could. If I dawdled, squirrels would climb right up on the bench and dig in.

By December, pumpkin vines were springing up all over the yard — in the little meadow on the side of our house, in the deep shade out back, in the flower bed surrounding the Little Free Library itself. All fall, the squirrels had been hiding pumpkin seeds, storing up for winter.

But winter was elusive last year, as it seems destined to be every year in this human-warmed world, and the warmth had stretched out long enough for those seeds to germinate. Instead of storing pumpkin seeds, the squirrels were planting them.

Winter did come eventually, and the young pumpkin vines died with the first frost. I thought that was the end of them. I was wrong.

Come May, more pumpkin vines popped up in the flower bed, and this time summer was on their side. The vines grew and grew and spread and spread, spilling down our driveway the way their parents had once spilled down my neighbors’ front steps. Pumpkin vines curled around the mailbox and climbed the bench. When pumpkins emerged, some of them ripened right on the street. Neighborhood children started paying daily visits, checking on their progress. I began to reconsider the tale of Jack and his beanstalk. Would a giant be coming in the night?

“The pumpkin has a boo-boo,” a neighborhood 3-year-old told me one day. When I bent to see what she meant, I saw where a small set of powerful incisors had conducted a taste test, just barely scratching the surface of the rind. Long before I would have guessed it was time to pick a pumpkin, the squirrels who planted them in the first place had come back to claim their crop. One of the pumpkins began to look exactly like the undead version of a jack-o’-lantern.

The pumpkin vines, despite being colonized by powdery mildew, are still blooming, and baby green pumpkins are still appearing where the blooms fall off. But already new pumpkin vines are erupting up all over the yard. A squirrel-perpetuating ecosystem.

For an entire year, I have taken great joy from watching squirrels return the neighborhood porchscape pumpkins to their original purpose, in the process feeding their own neighbors in this scruffy habitat. I like to think of the squirrel-planted pumpkins in my flower bed as an example writ small of how the natural world once worked before we interrupted it with our poisons and our machines. How it can still work, even in our built landscapes, if only we would let it. And much like my grandparents’ pecan trees, this harvest requires no work of us, and almost no care.

I recognize the forces arrayed against this hopeful view of the scorching habitat we call home. Who doesn’t know them by now? They weigh on me with the force of a giant’s foot pressing me into the hot ground.

Hope wells up anyway. God help me, I look at the squirrel-ravaged pumpkins next to our Little Free Library, and my whole heart brims with hope.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.

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