CHILLICOTHE — Monday morning. Two hours after an early February sunrise.
The sun hung 9 measly degrees of frigid in the air between the frozen ground and a gathering layer of grayish overcast that foreshadowed the forecasted promise of later-day snow.
Dressed snug against the cold in down coat, stocking cap, hood, boots and gloves, Chillicothe native Liz Reny, 58, sat on a foam cushion on a hard wooden picnic table bench at Shore Acres Park, her back to the icy Illinois River. With a 5-gallon True Value paint bucket and an old pool chemical container filled with nuts at her feet, she called out to her “babies."
“Come here baby,” she said, in a sing-songy voice squeezed high and tight by the sharp, cold air. “I see you. Come here, baby. Come on.”
Ten feet away a chubby gray squirrel hung upside down on the trunk of an ancient, bony tree. Claws dug solidly into bark, tail atwitch, head held up, it appeared, by human measures anyway, to listen to the voice that summoned it closer for breakfast.
“I see you,” Reny said to the squirrel.
She tossed a peanut. The squirrel skittered closer to the food, all nervy jitters and seemingly conflicted by the comfort and familiarity of the voice from the bench and its own innate wariness of the huge, bipedal creatures that walked upright when not moving in large, heavy boxes that could forever end a squirrel’s ceaseless hunt for nourishment. And often did.
It lurched, snagged the nut in its mouth, turned and bounded for the known safety of the tree.
Several other squirrels encroached. The morning feed was on.
"It's a beautiful morning," Reny said, despite almost every sensory indication that it was not. "I'm with my babies."
Reny starts nearly every day at Shore Acres Park. She parks her Honda in the lot next to the clubhouse, unloads the pails of black walnuts and peanuts, and commences feeding the squirrels that climb down from their trees at the sight of her. There's no cause and effect that directly explains her dedication to the squirrels of Shore Acres, although she mentions the death of her pet cat, Precious, at age 16, and her double hip replacement probably had something to do with it.
"I miss my cat terribly," she said. "And I've got to keep moving."
Reny no longer works. She sometimes accompanies her truck-driving husband on the road, but when she is home she is feeding the squirrels in Shore Acres in the morning, voluntarily pulling weeds at the post office in the warmer months and picking up cigarette butts from the ground wherever she finds them. She said she is a friend of Bill W., a cryptic mention maybe to some, but a deeply meaningful description to those who know what that means. No further explanation necessary, she said.
She has no problem keeping busy.
"This is where I'm meant to be," she said, slightly limping down a short hill toward the seawall that keeps the river out of the park. "It's beautiful here. It's my favorite place on earth."
On cue, two pair of geese honked past the clubhouse, flying north.
A well-timed "Good morning sweetie" puts the squirrels in motion. Some climb down from their tree, others peer down from a perch on a branch. For those she doesn't feed personally, she leaves behind handfuls of nuts at the base of the tree. Then moves on, tree to tree to tree to tree.
"Started out there were maybe four or five that showed any interest in me at all," Reny said. "Now there's at least 20."
We like squirrels. Unlike rats, they go about their business in the open and in broad daylight. They are not sneaky or furtive, but industrious and friendly.
"I don't get too close or feed directly by hand," Reny said. "Somebody's going to get bit."
Friends and neighbors donate nuts and take shifts when Reny is away.
"How are you sweetie?" she said to a squirrel in a tree.
"I don't like to see them smashed on the side of the road either," she said. "I scoop them up and bury them in my backyard. They need a final place to rest, too."
"Come here," she said. "Come here."
She emptied both tubs at the bottom of the tree. She'd be back in the morning.
"This is my God time," Reny said. "It's how I get charged."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.