Spotting a white squirrel
By Don Richeson / Staff
CASHIERS -- I saw my first white squirrel recently -- just a stone’s throw from the crossroads. It was exciting. I had heard about their presence in the area, noticing things like a road called White Squirrel Trail in Glenville.
I understand Brevard has an unusually large population of them, so if you head that way a lot, you’ll yawn about my news of the sighting. But generally speaking, they are still considered rare.
I was heading into the office to do a little work on a quiet Sunday and noticed Mr. White Squirrel scampering around the items displayed on the grounds of The Wormy Chestnut, the antiques and collectibles store directly across U.S. Highway 64 West from our office. He descended from a tree, darted around a herd of the store’s decorative metal goats displayed along the highway, jumped back onto a tree and eyed me some as I took his photo from across the street using a telephoto lens. In less than a minute, he was gone, making his way through the treetops to the nearby Village Green.
A few days later, I caught up with Wormy Chestnut Owner Phil “Slick” Monteith as he brushed a coat of fuchsia paint onto an Adirondack chair outside. As is often the case, Keeno, his handsome amber-colored Labrador-golden retriever-Pyrenees mix, kept him company while he worked, offering a tail wag to passersby.
Monteith said it isn’t that unusual to see the white squirrel around his store and, after swiping the face of his cell phone a bit, produced an image of a white squirrel he had taken earlier.
In addition to occasionally hosting a roving white squirrel and selling antiques and collectibles, Monteith has another claim to fame. Monteith was co-captain of the 1975 Glenville High School boys basketball team, which was the school’s winningest boys hoops squad. Monteith’s team was inducted into the Jackson County Athletic Hall of Fame last year and was the last such team at Glenville High, which closed that school year as the then-new Blue Ridge School and Early College opened.
I haven’t seen the white version of eastern gray squirrel at Monteith’s store since my first sighting, although I have seen him two or three times at another crossroads location, so he is a resident of the area. I’m avoiding getting too specific on his current main location, because I am afraid harm could come to him and I want to enjoy seeing him again.
I’ve been intrigued by white squirrels and the idea of white “spirit” animals for a while and have done a little research on them. I’m referring to the ones like my crossroads squirrel, whose whiteness is due to a special gene that produces white fur, not due to albinioism, which causes a lack of pigment throughout the body, including the eyes. White, special gene-carrying versions of animals not normally colored white are often held sacred by many indigenous cultures and are said to offer special wisdom to all who will listen.
I remember once reading about a white gorilla in National Geographic and there are also rare white lions, as well as white black bears. The latter of which, called Kermode bears, mostly live on islands off British Columbia where they make up to about 20 percent of the bear population.
For unknown reasons, white squirrels are clustered apparently randomly around just a handful of eastern North American communities. In talking to folks around southern Jackson County and checking Internet sources, Brevard is mentioned most often. Others, according to the http://www.untamedscience.com/biodiversity/white-squirrel/ website, include Marionville, Missouri; Olney, Illinois; Kenton, Tennessee and Exeter, Ontario Canada. Big white squirrel communities would have to be ones without a lot of predators like hawks -- white squirrels are much easier to spot (and end up as lunch) than their gray relatives.
With the Brevard ones, a frequently reported story is that they are descended from ones that escaped from a carnival and the group multiplied over the years. That’s according to the website for Heart of Brevard, the community’s Main Street America community revitalization program, which said this happened in the early 1950s. Brevard, whose squirrel population is now reportedly one third white squirrels, has really run with their presence and even offers a big annual White Squirrel Festival.
One can surmise some of the Brevard ones have, as so many folks, been attracted by Cashiers’ charms and over time trekked west through the treetops to set up residence here. They are interesting little critters and add to our area’s marketability. I hope they establish a good foothold here.
(Don Richeson is editor of the Crossroads Chronicle and lives in southern Jackson County. Contact him via email at editor@CrossroadsChronicle.com. Richeson encourages readers to get involved and keep the Chronicle Opinion pages No. 1 in North Carolina in the paper’s circulation category. Email column and Question of the Week ideas, as well as your letters.)
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