The pine cone mystery

By Ande Jacobson

For over 25 years, a giant pine tree that was rooted at the apartment complex next door loomed over the back half of my townhouse. It also sprawled over a large portion of the common area behind my building. That tree was monstrous. In addition to a constant flow of pine needles and twigs covering my roof year around, it dropped pine cones onto my roof that sometimes startled me out of a sound sleep. Many of those pine cones would eventually either roll off the roof onto the patio or fall there directly from the tree. That tree threatened to drop limbs which could make stormy nights especially daunting. Fortunately when limbs did fall on occasion, they fell into our common area, and our HOA would eventually have them cut up and hauled away. A few months ago, the apartment complex next door brought in a tree service to cut down that tree and turn it into mulch. It had been sick and posed a danger to people at both the apartments and our townhouse development.

There is also a large pine tree in front of my house inside our development, and while some of the needles continue to blow onto my roof, its branch and pine cone droppings are limited to the ground under the tree and the driveway in front of our garages. A few times that tree dropped a big branch that blocked a couple of nearby garages for a few days until a tree service could remove the fallen branch, but those drops didn’t damage the building.

Since the pine tree in the back has been gone, my patio has been free of pine cones and pine needles, until this week. Early in the week as I do periodically, I swept the accumulated leaves from the trees that still loom more meekly over my fence. A few hours after I finished, I noticed a single, large pine cone on my patio that hadn’t been there in the morning when I swept. Since there was no way for a pine cone to fall from the tree in front all the way to the back patio, I wondered if someone had thrown it over my fence for some reason. There’s occasionally a good bit of foot traffic on the path that runs beside my house from the driveway in the front and the common area in the back. In addition to random walkers sauntering by, kids from the apartments next door occasionally run along the path to retrieve badminton birdies or balls that have magically flown over the fence separating the apartments from our townhouses. Still, a pine cone magically making its way over my back fence was mysterious.

The pine cone remained on the patio for a couple of days. Although I had not been out there since I swept off the leaves days before, the next morning the pine cone was gone! The gate had been locked the whole time, and as far as I could tell nobody else had been on the patio. A pine cone doesn’t just grow legs and run away, so someone or something had to have moved it. The winds hadn’t been strong enough to blow it anywhere, but even if they had the whole patio area is fenced. At most a particularly strong wind might blow something that size against the fence, but it wouldn’t raise it over six feet in the air and over the fence. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that it could have been blown under the gap in the gate if the wind had been strong enough (which it didn’t seem to be), but since it wasn’t anywhere to be found outside the gate when I checked, I thought that rather unlikely as well.

I had a mystery on my hands. How had an inanimate object like a pine cone gotten out of the locked patio area when nobody from my household had moved it? It’s a small thing, but nonetheless I was curious how this could happen.

It is spring, and with it the flowers are blooming, the bees are buzzing, and the ants are marching. While I know that ants are strong, even they couldn’t move a whole pine cone off the patio. Besides, I’d sprayed the patio area and the fence because I’ve seen a few ants where they shouldn’t be, but I hadn’t seen a whole column of them. Further, the pine cone had been completely intact the day before, and it was a big one, so even if ants had somehow decided to feast on it, there would have been some evidence beyond it just being gone with nary an ant to be found where it had been.

A few hours later while looking out my den window I noticed a squirrel near the big pine tree in front of my house. It was working hard moving a pine cone along in the dirt when it finally picked it up and ran with it. It was quite a sight. The pine cone was almost as big as the squirrel, yet this fuzzy fellow managed to maneuver it in such a way that it could actually run a few feet at a time before readjusting. I smiled as I realized that this fuzzy fellow had solved my mystery. For whatever reason, a squirrel must have initially stashed a pine cone on my patio, and then days later came back to retrieve its treasure.

The events this week reminded me that despite most of the crises we read about in the news, there is also something to be said for just living. Going about my weekly chores brings me back to the simpler aspects of life. Pondering how that pine cone got onto my patio this week was about as far away from the nonsense consuming the headlines as could be, and yet to a little squirrel something like a pine cone is crucially important. We could learn a lot from the wildlife around us. We can get so focused on things that really don’t matter that we can lose touch with appreciating just living and helping one another to thrive like that little squirrel with its pine cone.

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