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Eric Ferguson: Stressed out? Try squirreling

By Eric Ferguson, Columnist
Published November 13, 2012

A peanut in hand, I slowly walk toward one of the small, fuzzy rodents moving busily from tree to tree, and nut to buried nut. I wave the peanut up and down and a squirrel snaps its head around to look right at me, sitting up on its hind legs. I kneel, arm extended, as it approaches the peanut slowly but determinedly, loping through the chilly November grass. I accidentally jerk my hand a little to the right, and the squirrel scampers back a few steps in exaggerated alarm but is not deterred from its quest. It comes right up to me and takes the peanut out of my hand with the utmost care, cocking its head in order to get just the right grip. I let go and it takes a few hopping steps away from me before sitting on its hind legs and taking the nut from its mouth to between its front paws. With practiced precision, the squirrel systematically removes the shell to get at the nutty goodness within, while I grab another peanut and go search for another squirrel to feed.

This is what happens on Sundays during good weather for members of the Squirrel Club, like myself. For no more than an hour, I take a handful of peanuts into the Diag and forget about most of the daily concerns of the college student: the readings, the essays, the homework, the all-important balance between work and play that makes college neither a place for pure academia or constant partying, but an engrossing mix of the two. At this point in the semester, with professors trying to wrap things up before Thanksgiving and final exams barely a month away, finding something to do for a little while that’s totally unrelated to academics clears my head so when I do return to work, I’m in a better mental place than when I left. And with all of the other hurdles that life can throw at a person — like the end of a relationship or problems involving a family member — sometimes it’s best to just engage in an activity where all of that becomes irrelevant for a little while. Plus, you get to make squirrels happy!

Apart from being fun, it can be good for your health to have a leisure activity, whether it’s feeding squirrels, playing basketball, volunteering around Ann Arbor or getting your gank on in League of Legends. I’m not alone in receiving stress-reduction benefits from this; one study has shown that along with reducing symptoms of stress, leisure activities can also reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Anyone reading this should consider becoming a Michigan Squirreler, though, even if it’s just for an afternoon. It’s really hard to be in a bad mood when feeding a squirrel, with passersby looking at you with a combination of curiosity and wonder and a sleek, grey-furred animal with the fluffiest of tails chowing down on something you gave it. Fat squirrels, skinny squirrels, groups of squirrels, loner squirrels who would rather crouch in the bushes near the Chemistry Building than come onto the Diag proper — getting one of them to come over and grab a nut out of your hand isn’t really something that can be imagined. You have to try it. And if you do, and you enjoy it as much as I do, get a friend out there and convince them to try it for themselves. While doing it by yourself is fun, spreading the joy of squirreling with other people can be even more entertaining.

If feeding the squirrels isn’t your thing, that’s fine. It’ll mean more squirrels for me, and there’s no shortage of other leisurely campus activities that one can partake in. But whether you’re stressed out, enjoy small animals or are just plain bored, squirrel feeding is an activity sure to brighten your day.

Eric Ferguson can be reached at ericff@umich.edu.