Book review: In ‘Squirrelland,’ an unsung avatar for the way the wilderness works

“Squirrelland: Imagination and the Alaska Red Squirrel”

By Eric Wade; Photography by Doylanne Wade; Shanti Arts Publishing, 2023; 90 pages; $21.95.

On my first trip into Denali National Park in 1990, days after arriving in Alaska, I watched a fox capture and quickly consume a ground squirrel. I’d spent the previous three years in Seattle, where squirrels have the run of the city and their most dangerous predator was the automobile tire, so I hadn’t given much thought to their role in the web of life. They were mostly a source of amusement when walking through urban parks, where they had little fear of humans who often arrived bearing treats. In Denali, I quickly learned, squirrels were the treats.

Being near the bottom of the food chain, and knowing it, affects squirrel behavior, something that Eric Wade explores in his brief, somewhat meandering, but thoroughly pleasant new book “Squirrelland,” which includes photographs by his wife, Doylanne Wade.

“My experience walking through city parks, often encountering squirrels, has convinced me they obviously aren’t domesticated,” Wade writes, “but they have resources not available to wilderness squirrels, and it appears their lives are not multiple-alarm fires like their cousins in the wild. The wilderness is simply different.”

Wade explains that he had been doing a lot of thinking about the squirrels that inhabit the area around the remote cabin he and Doylanne built in Alaska’s interior, where they spend several weeks every summer. Squirrels, he tells us, are popular topics in literature (particularly children’s books), but behavioral studies were what he went looking for. One in particular stood out. It was done not by a scientist, but by a speech and language major at Boston University named Emma Rademacher.

Rademacher tested squirrel boldness and vigilance in different parts of Boston, hypothesizing that squirrels living in areas of the city with higher densities of greenery would be less fearful of humans than those dwelling where trees are few or nonexistent. She tested how close she could get to the squirrels before they ran away, and also their likelihood of taking an offered treat directly from her hand. Her data confirmed her hypothesis. Squirrels that had easy access to shelter were bolder and less fearful than those who dwelt in places denuded of plant life.


Wade decided to carry out a similar experiment with the red squirrels subsisting near his cabin, though he guessed that in a place where predators abound, they would be more vigilant and less likely to be enticed with treats than the urban squirrels Rademacher studied. He found that with time, as the squirrels he interacted with grew used to his presence, they allowed him to approach more closely. But unlike Rademacher, he was unable to entice them with treats. In an environment where predators are rife, they weren’t taking chances. In fact, they weren’t even easy to locate. During his first period of observations, taken in June, he only spotted three. He had better luck in the fall, but even then they remained largely elusive.

Wade’s homestead study of resident squirrels is only one part of this book. He also devotes a fair bit of time to following the activities of an imagined squirrel as a means of describing the lives of these animals, who are forever dodging an endless parade of predators that include the aforementioned fox, as well as “lynx, wolves, coyotes, weasels, mink, marten, black bears, grizzlies...great horned, great gray, and short-eared owls; bald and golden eagles; northern goshawks, sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, and ravens.”

Wade sketches out his imagined squirrel’s narrow escapes from several of these creatures and uses its experiences as a launching pad for broader contemplations on the circle of life and death that continually spins around him. Squirrels themselves are omnivores, he notes, and frogs are among the creatures they prey on. This relationship allows Wade to divert briefly into the life cycles of the Interior’s wood frogs, which burrow into the mud and freeze during winters, then thaw back to life come spring, a fascinating adaptation to a brutal environment.

Elsewhere he turns turns whimsical, reimagining Isaac Newton’s a-ha moment with gravity by having a squirrel knock the famous apple out of the tree, leading the famed scientist to one of history’s great moments of discovery. Had that event transpired as Wade envisions, it would have been a squirrel habituated to humans that released the apple from the tree. But it would still have been a wild animal, which is one of Wade’s points.

In a section that draws on Chaucer, the myths of knights and cowboys, and the historian Yuval Noah Harari, Wade examines just what the idea of “wild” means. Charismatic megafauna and undeveloped open spaces are what we usually think of. But the tiniest of creatures deserve just as much attention, their presence showing that wildlife is forever around us, even thriving in urban jungles deprived of larger predators. In a line from the introduction that perhaps best captures the objective of this book, Wade writes, “Take the small from the world, and the big will vanish; the converse is not true.”

Those small little squirrels are a vital nutrient to much larger animals. Black bears, which feed on squirrels, are 350 times larger than their prey, Wade tells us. This is an even greater difference in size than that between humans and Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is a ratio of just 75 times. Bigness, Wade insists, is an overrated attribute, and our focus on large animals skews our sense of wildlife.

Wade’s study taught him several things about the squirrels running wild on his homestead. They can withstand temperatures of -70 degrees Fahrenheit, a single squirrel generally occupies about an acre of land around his cabin, and they survive by constant movement. “They utilize an economic philosophy that is taught to humans at the finest universities,” he writes, “work, save, and diversify. They’re clean, well-groomed, and fit, always ready to move at lightning speed.”

The humble squirrel, in Wade’s telling, isn’t just an amusing rodent. In “Squirrelland,” it’s an unsung symbol of wilderness.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at