what next?


The American walnut tree in my garden in England is twenty years old now. I planted it with a plan to pickle walnuts: the trees only start to bring out the fat green pods of the coverings over the 'nuts' when they are twelve years old or so. Now I get a good crop, if I can beat the grey squirrels to the harvest. I have not been able to find out the difference between the American walnut and a European one: the grey squirrels who are my competitors were native to Northern America and when released into the wild in England demonstrated an explosive breeding edge over the native reds, who now only survive in conifer plantations in Scotland. The red squirrel wipe-out happened when I was a child, and everyone was sentimentally on the side of the undersquirrel, without understanding in the least how the greys were wiping out the opposition. Opinion was that American history was somehow repeating itself in the animal kingdom in some zany kind of reversed geography, where the grey squirrels were the ruthless American settlers and the red squirrels were of course noble native 'red' indians. However, no evidence of squirrel-by-squirrel massacre was ever found. The truth, unpopular as ever, slowly emerged. The greys were expanding because they had the edge in their more tolerant digestion. Reds browsed on a narrow spectrum of nuts. The less fastidious diet of the greys meant that there was always plenty to spare and the greys were able to have larger families than the reds. So the greys prospered at the expense of the reds, all without a shot being fired, (Except by humans, at the pesky little varmints) and arguably without the participants in this dance of selection realising the effect they were having on each other. The red species today is corralled into plantations of pine in Scotland where a pine-nut-rich diet allows them a toe hold. It's also perfectly possible that the two are interbreeding unnoticed and the red is going into the DNA junk-yard. In humans, red pigmentation of hair is a recessive gene. How different to squirrels are we, after all? Paleontologists and biologists are keen to point to a humbling forbear for all mammals; a generically rat like creature that may well have had a red bushy tail, to steady its reckless leaps through the forests of Gondwona, the mythic One Continent, before the Americas stopped snuggling into the Bight of Benin, broke away, and set off across the world, inventing a brand-new Wide Blue Yonder. Nowadays the tectonic plates responsible for the creation of the Atlantic grow apart at around the pace of growth of a red squirrel's claw. I guess that New York is two feet further away from me, since the day I planted an American Walnut, and two yards further than when the Yankee squirrels arrived in their aerial wagon trains and set up house in the trees in their 'drays' -- a word whose origins, despite the existence of the most powerful computers in creation remain obscure. I conclude there are some things we may never know.