Al Batt: Are you scatterbrained or a scatter hoarder?

Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


“She hoards everything but money.”

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A woman said that to me as her sister walked away from us to find food at a fair stand.

“She has never found anything without value,” she added.

That sounded like a good trait, but I realize that every goodness carries its own fault.

“She’s never found anything worth throwing away,” I said, feeling the need to say something. I understand hoarding. I could hoard books with a bit of prodding. Or toilet paper rolls. Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change the toilet paper roll.

When most people hear the word “hoarding,” an image of someone surrounded by piles of worthless junk (as opposed to priceless junk) appears in the cartoon bubbles over their heads. Hoarding leads to a downward spiral, family intervention, counseling, continued hoarding and maybe a disturbing reality TV show. 

In my yard, hoarding has a different meaning. No, there aren’t partially dismantled cars up on blocks gracing the front yard. Although an old pickup truck rusting away contentedly with the box filled with flowers might be a nice touch.

The hoarding in my yard refers to the practice of hiding food to be eaten later. I’m not stashing Twinkies in every available nook and cranny. Hoarding is a strategy used by animals to store seasonally abundant food to eat later. It’s often important to hide this food from other animals. There are two kinds of hoarding, neither one involving Beanie Babies. They are larder hoarding and scatter hoarding. Larder hoarding animals make central food caches, or larders, which they vigorously defend. Red squirrels are a prime example and anyone walking near their middens is scolded vociferously. Scatter hoarders create many food caches. Many species cache food, including the eastern gray squirrel.

If you have watched a squirrel for any amount of time, as I have, it becomes obvious that much of a squirrel’s life is spent pursuing food. They spend hours burying nuts. They eat acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts. They eat other things, but they’re nuts for nuts.

Gray squirrels are world class scatter hoarders, but they are bushy-tailed beguilers. A gray squirrel will pretend to bury an acorn just in case other squirrels or blue jays are watching and planning to steal its provisions. It might return to a buried acorn, dig it up and move it to a new location it considers more secure. It will do the same thing after swiping another squirrel’s cached necessaries. Squirrels are sophisticated about choosing which foods to cache. They often choose to bury red oak acorns, which germinate in the spring, but eat white oak acorns that germinate in the fall and lose nutritional value if stored long in the ground. Hoarding helps squirrels stay active all winter long. 

I read about a study in Natural History documenting the oak tree planting abilities of blue jays. It found that 50 jays cached 150,000 acorns in 28 days. That’s about 110 acorns per day for each bird and no jay owns a shovel.

I spoke in Sterling, Illinois. When I closed the door to my lodging, I discovered a thick wallet that would have choked not just a horse, but a workhorse on the floor. A lawyer from North Carolina was surprised to hear from me and shocked to learn that he’d be getting his billfold and its contacts back. I’ve found several cellphones and a snazzy laptop computer in airports. I turned each one over to airline employees who gave me weary, polite smiles as receipts. I found a purse in a supermarket shopping cart.

Recently, I’ve talked to people who have misplaced car keys, smartphones, house keys, passport, purse, wallet, driver’s license, charger cords and credit card. They doubtlessly experienced the panic associated with such losses. Maybe some became Eeyore when faced with such setbacks. Eeyore is a character in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories written by A. A. Milne. Eeyore is characterized as a pessimistic, gloomy and depressed stuffed donkey. I didn’t meet these people in a support group for the forgetful, inattentive and empty-headed. These were regular folks I’d met in the normal course of my life. They might describe themselves as scatterbrained. We’ve all been there.

We lose track of things. It’s the curse of having stuff. I forgot one of my five shopping bags in a store. Not all who wander are lost. Some are merely searching for lost items. The next time you misplace something, think of your friendly neighborhood squirrel.

You aren’t scatterbrained. You’re a scatter hoarder.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.