The comical, animated chipmunk that entertained us all last summer by scurrying back and forth across our backyard with cheeks stuffed with seeds and nuts is a comical personality of the larger squirrel family.
The chipmunk appeared regularly, every morning during daylight hours, industriously finding and transporting food to be stored up for this winter. After the chambers of the den were dug for storage, it used dirt to plug the working tunnel and then began another hidden entrance under a woodpile, which is out of sight of predators.
Now the animal is hibernating with its treasure trove of food in a torpid state of lower temperature and slower heartbeat. It may wake up every few days to eat and then go outside to defecate. Then it goes back down to go to sleep in its subterranean shelter from the ice and snowstorms of a past winter blizzard as snug as a bug.
When this chipmunk scampered across our yard, it held its flat furry tail joyfully in the air, as in my illustration, with a cute, mischievous expression and made a short chipping sound from which it gets its description title. It is believed the chipmunk was named from the “chetamon” native title given it by the Chippewa Indians.
The stage name Alvin was inspired by writer and composer David Seville as the naughty ringleader of the performing trio that also included Simon, the bespectacled intellect, and Theodore, the animated chubby character clown. All three personalities have very strong qualities associated with real people that have high squeaky voices and a humorous repertoire of animated song and dance. This attribution of human behavior to Alvin and the Chipmunks is a classic example of a phenomenon in children’s literature called “anthropomorphism.”
Anthropomorphism has ancient roots in storytelling as well as illustrations of both domestic and wild creatures. Prehistoric caveman reproductions of wild animal figures of prey are determined to be approximately 32,000 years old. In print, there are also ancient fables with lessons of behavior to be read by youngsters that put animals in a pleasing light and enjoyable as fairytale telling in early childhood. In film entertainment, television, and video games, some notable examples are Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and female singing chipmunks called The Chipettes, and Warner Bros.’ Porky Pig.
A familiar Christmas theme found its way into the Chipmunks’ home, where Alvin turned over a new leaf of bad behavior just in time to ensure that Santa Claus would climb down their chimney. The “Christmas with the Chipmunks” album ranked in popularity with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with the Chipmunks’ penultimate number, the entertaining “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).”
In Christmas mode, Alvin became the most successful children’s artist of all time. He earned five Grammy Awards, an American Music Award, a Golden Reel Award, three Emmy Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
From the back porch of our seaside residence in Little Bay, we will be glad when the winter and pandemic are behind us. We look forward to the return of the ospreys to the nearby net, the gulls diving down over returning schools of striped bass, and, especially, the comical entertainment of the anthropomorphic chipmunk. Let them take us back to the magical moment of the arrival of the springs we used to know with their hopeful promises of a healthy environmental renewal.
By George B. Emmons