Most people who spend time in the mountains have this experience. You’re in a beautiful mountain setting—tall peaks are reflected in a lake surrounded by pine trees—yet all eyes are trained on the ground, with occasional cries, “Where’d he go?” “There he is. Behind the tree.” And another group of tourists have been caught in the seductive web of one of the cutest of animals: the chipmunk.
I have chipmunks, ground squirrels, and chickarees (as well as the occasional Abert’s squirrel) at my cabin, although most people lump them all together as chipmunks. But it’s the ground squirrel that gets the most attention in the mountains, especially in places like Rocky Mountain National Park, where they are accustomed to tourists throwing nuts and pieces of bread at them.
There is something very appealing about these animals, almost human in the way they sit up and hold a piece of bread in their claws, or how they are able to utterly relax how they interact with humans, imploring us with those big brown eyes that we can’t resist (“Just one more nut, sweetheart?”). Even the way they stuff their cheeks with food fondly reminds us of our own gluttony. It’s easy to become smitten with them. You want to pick them up and snuggle.
On a hike to Mills Lake in the park last week, after one ground squirrel had its fill of food, it went to a nearby rock and calmly posed, standing tall, looking around and out over the lake, with its hands folded in front, an elegant and stately pose (right). What kind of consciousness does this animal have to so clearly and calmly regard its surroundings?
Yet when they’re not posing for tourists, ground squirrels (and chipmunks) are busy foraging for food and avoiding predators that could come from the sky or behind the rock. Despite having to always be alert for danger, they are seemingly able to enjoy each moment and relax completely. Maybe that’s why we’re so captivated by them, why our hearts go out to them: In a parallel universe to us, they offer some vision of a richly lived existence.
There’s a couple of ground squirrels at my cabin who stand on the front deck, peering through the window, curious, I guess, or as if they want to engage me. It almost feels like an invitation: Here’s my world, and you’re welcome in it.