George Allan England: The Harvard Years

Sciurus Carolinensis, Esq.

By George Allan England.Photographs by J. B. Stetson, Jr., and G. A. E.

If this piece by England is any indication, then the English department at Harvard was not only educating students in the history of their field, but were also instructing their charges in the practical applications of writing beyond poetry and prose (in other words, how to make a living). Newspapers were extremely prevelant in the early days of the 20th century and, with pages and pages to fill each week, employed large numbers of reporters and writers as a part of their staffs. Many authors worked in some capacity for newspapers while they honed their fiction skills, enjoying the stability of a regular paycheck. These papers also featured fiction on a regular basis, offering a chance for the struggling author to break into print. While “Sciurus Carolinensis, Esq.” may seem, at first glance, to be an example of England being too “cute” (or written with his tongue firmly in cheek), it is actually written in the "fluffy" style of these early newspapers, which was much less formal than our newspaper writing of today, and could have easily been published as a filler piece—providing an editor felt there was interest in the indigenous squirrels of Harvard.

“Sciurus Carolinensis, Esq.” first appeared in the November, 1902 issue of The Harvard Illustrated Magazine and this is its first reprinting since that time.

Bob Gay
Month, 2015
Introduction © 2015 by Bob Gay

Original title art for Sciurus Carolinensis, Esq. I

WONDER whether any of the teeming multitudes of Harvard undergraduates who serve up periodic squirrel pot-pie to a long suffering English department have ever realized that Sciurus Carolinensis Harvardiaræ is a regular member of our corporate body, a recognized parishioner of the University? Down in the basement of Harvard Hall—that gloomy cavern whence issue unnumbered things—there lie two great bags of raw peanuts, bought every year with the Corporation’s money for the little people with the big name, and every morning at seven our almoner fills the green boxes about the Yard, which serve as arboreal pantries. There is also a certain tin pan whither the squirrels come to drink; they are quite at home with us and know it. The University has them under its wing, if you please, and all lay-offerings of roasted chestnuts and the like, are, strictly speaking, only in the nature of dessert. Remember, when the next squirrel runs up you as if you were an elm, and digs his claws into the strangely smooth, white bark that covers your upper twigs, that he looks upon you as a strictly dispensable commodity.

“Ned” tells me there are two sets—one in the Old Yard, a good old family, the upper ten by all means, and one in the semi-explored regions over back of University, where the college wood-pile and the checkerberry-swamp used to be. The Old Yard clan mostly congregate in the vicinity of Grays, though of course they wander as far as Brooks House on occasion. They are of older stock than the other colony, having been in possession even before “Ned” came (early cenozoic, at least), and from their green feudal castle perched on commanding heights, look down upon the houseless upstarts of Severland. All their “kittens”—as the young are called—are educated in the higher branches, and from the earliest age are carefully trained in the arts and amenities of squirreldom.

A squirrel eating out of someone's hand

Mrs. S. is a very busy person indeed, with two complete families per annum to bring up. When the kittens are about as large as good-sized mice, their mother begins to think about moving; no well-bred family is ever reared in its native house. She takes them one by one in her maternal mouth and bears them, limp and formless rags of protoplasmic animation, down the rugged trunk, across the fearful lawns where numberless dangers lurk, and far away to some new home, safe from the jealous husband with his unpleasant tendency to gnaw his offspring’s legs. With true Malthusian foresight Mr. S. opposes undue increase; and even after the young are well-grown they and their father fail to agree. I have seen an old male bristle with anger, twitch his tail in the characteristic way that means danger, and wither his own sons with looks of hatred from half-closed eyes when they approached too near the paper bag of nuts I held out to both alike. Mrs. S., then, has to guard against her own spouse almost as zealously as against those predatory cats which decimate the race.

A squirrel on someone's arm

Cats are, in fact, the chief terror and enemy of the squirrel race. Summertime is a hard season, since many human families, going away from Cambridge, leave their “harmless necessary” cats to provide for themselves, the result being an immediate increase in the squirrel death-rate. Dogs are not particularly dangerous, but cats stalk their prey and take them unawares, especially in the shrubbery around the buildings, whither the squirrels go to bury nuts. The ivy furnishes some refuge, indeed, but many a promising young squirrel has, alas, met an untimely end under our very windows.

Natural history books tell us that Sciurus C. goes to sleep for the winter. I hate to dispute natural history books; perhaps the college bell keeps squirrels awake hereabouts—at any rate, ours are awake and hopping about all winter, and except on the severest days go scampering over the frozen ground or come down from their nests to lick the snow. What happens to the vast stores of nuts they bury away so carefully I cannot imagine. It must be a sore task to dig up a frozen chestnut out of congealed earth and eat it. If squirrels were amenable to suggestion, I should hint to them the wisdom of filling their houses with groceries against the snowy months; but very likely they know better than we how to live when even the daily allowance of the University is frozen in the green boxes.

To me their most amusing trick, next to running up one’s leg or digging in one’s hair, is this very one of burying all they cannot devour at once with frenzied haste. In this, as in everything else, squirrels are always in an insane spasm of haste; from the cradle to the grave life is one long twitch, chatter, scurry, scamper and so on, da capo. They seek their food with incredible eagerness, though stuffed to repletion; when found, they bolt it as nearly whole as a diminutive throat allows, and then the mad search for more recommences with fresh strenuosity. When it becomes a physical impossibility for the gorged gluttons to hold another crumb, they consent to bury their surplus, choosing a place with endless care, very much as a New England diviner seeks for water with his hazel twig. Once in a while, distrusting the power of leaves and earth to hide the treasure, a squirrel will carry it up the ivy and hide it under a window-sill or ledge, as I have seen one do with a great horse-chestnut, eminently unsafe to leave at the mercy of other prowlers; but in the long run Mother Earth is their great store-house.

A picture of a squirrel sitting on the grass
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