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THE WAY OF A WOODCHUCK
The memory of my first glimpse of a woodchuck always reminds me of an old story which needs to be retold that it may point my moral even though it does not adorn my tale.
A minister, supplying for a time in a country parish, took a pleasant path through the fields to the church of a Sunday morning just before the service. There he found a boy digging most furiously in the sandy ground.
"My lad," said the minister, in kindly reproof, you ought not to do this on Sunday morning unless it is a labor of necessity."
"I don't know nuthin' about necessity," replied the boy without stopping for a moment, "but I've got to get this woodchuck. The minister's comin' to dinner."
Nobody has ever told whether the boy -- and after him the minister -- got the woodchuck or not, but there is at least an even chance that he did not, for a woodchuck in sandy ground will move on into it, taking his hole with him, at a rate that has defied more than one industrious pursuer. Just how he breathes while this is going on is more than I know, for he fills the passage behind him with the debris of his digging, but he evidently does find air enough, for after tiring out the excavating hunter and waiting a reasonable time he digs up and out and proceeds to the deglutition of kitchen gardens with an artistic thoroughness that has been his since days of the Pilgrim Fathers, and I will not undertake to say how long before that. I do not doubt that the first Indian that ever planted corn and beans and "iskooter-squashes" said the same things about the woodchuck that I do, in his own language; and I believe that the woodchuck then, as he does now, just wrinkled his stubby black nose and retired to his burrow to sleep upon it while the garden digested.
No one to look casually at the woodchuck would think he was hard to get, but he is. The first time I ever glimpsed one I learned that. The woodchuck was eating second-crop clover in a hayfield that had been mown about three weeks before. A little cocker spaniel and I were strolling in the field when suddenly we heard a squeal that was shrill enough to be a whistle and a fuzzy brown blur streaked for the stone wall, followed by another. The cocker spaniel had decided, like that boy, that he had got to get the woodchuck. I fancy he thought he had him when they came together about five feet outside the crevice in the wall for which the woodchuck had made his fuzzy bee line, but as a matter of fact the woodchuck got the first grip. His long yellow incisors met in the cocker's shoulder and that worthy gave forth a yelp of pain and indignation as the battle began with that strange hold.
I wish I might describe the Homeric conflict that followed, but it was too full of action for anyone to grasp the details. A furry pinwheel revolved in varying planes, smearing the stubble with gore and filling the air with cries of mingled pain and defiance, for what seemed to an astounded and perturbed small boy a good part of the afternoon. Most of the gore and all the cries came from the dog, for the woodchuck fought in grim silence, though no whit more pluckily than his opponent. In the end the dog won, but he was the most devastated small dog that I have ever seen, before or since, and had it not been for prompt surgical aid at his home nearby I dare say Charon might have ferried both shades over the Styx together. No, the woodchuck is not so easy to get. He is quite likely to whip his own weight in most anything that forces him to do battle.
But I have never known a woodchuck to do battle that was not forced upon him. In point of fact he is one of the most home-loving, peaceful animals I have known. He is the original home-body and if the market where he is forced to seek supplies is not near enough to his home he moves the home nearer the market. In that often lies his undoing. His safety is in the woodland border or in the far pasture stone wall. There if he would content himself with aromatic barks and wild pasture herbs he might dwell unharmed of man, who is his chief enemy. But he loves the clover field, and often his first move toward disaster is coming up from the pasture wall and digging a burrow in the midst of the clover where he soon has regular paths which take him from one rich clump to another. After that he sniffs the kitchen garden, and the descent to Avernus is easy. He moves in to the borders, finds a crevice or digs a hole, and revels. Nor does he recognize the place as Avernus -- which it is bound to be sooner or later -- but spells it Olympus in very truth. Man may be the devastator of the earth, and he certainly is so far as its wild life is concerned, but as a producer of succulence in the kitchen garden he is a deity before whom any woodchuck must fall down and worship.
For the woodchuck besides being the original home-body is without doubt one of the founders of vegetarianism. Born in the desert places, feeding on locust bark and wild honeysuckle, he added inches to his girth when he learned that red clover which the early settlers kindly brought with them had a nourishing quality that defies competition. A woodchuck can get so fat on clover that by November, when he retires for the year, he is as near a complete globe as anything with feet and a face can ever be. The convexity begins at his eyebrows above, at his chin beneath, and though he has feet, they have the effect of being merely pinned on to the lower hem of his garment, as those of a proper young lady in our grandmother's day were supposed to be. The woodchuck can get no fatter than that on garden truck, but he likes it better. I doubt if Charles Dickens ever saw the animal, but when he created
Wardle's fat boy he might well have taken him for a model. "D--n that
boy," says Mr. Wardle, "he's asleep again." That was when he had ceased
eating, and so it is with the woodchuck. In the early dawn when the dew
is on the lettuce, he takes his toll of the bed, seasoning it with a
radish and a snip at a leaf or two from the herb bed. But such are mere
appetizers for the feast. The next course is the peas. He can go down a
row of peas that are about to set their flat pods swelling to become
fat pods and eliminate everything but a stubble of tough butts that
have been shorn of their ladylike and smiling greenness. Pea vines in
the garden always seem such gentle ladies, clad in a fabric of soft,
semitransparent green, nodding and smiling, slender, tall and sweet.
But when the woodchuck romps back up the row nothing is to be seen but
I once heard a vigorous discussion amongst men who know the woods and the ways of wild creatures, as to whether or not a woodchuck can climb a tree. The discussion ended rather abruptly when one of the party produced a photograph of a woodchuck a dozen feet up a big pine sitting on a small stub of a limb, looking somewhat exultant but also as if he wondered not only how he got so high but how on earth he was ever to get down again. I myself would not have believed a woodchuck could climb a tree of that size if I had not seen the photograph, and I fear there are some doubters in the party to this day. But whether or not a woodchuck can climb a big pine he can go up a bean pole as far as a bean vine can climb, and return with the bean vine inside. It takes but a few mornings for a woodchuck who means to keep fat enough not to shame his tribe to send a fleet of beans, that but now had everything set in living green from main truck to keelson, scudding down the garden under bare poles, a melancholy sight to the amateur truck farm navigator. On peas and beans the woodchuck holds his own, and he reckons as his own all that the garden contains. For all that you find frequently one that has a special taste. My last year's most intimate woodchuck climbed the bean poles and romped the rows of early peas as I have described. These were his occupation, his day's work, so to speak, and he went at them at the first blink of dawn and got them off his mind. Then he retired to his burrow just on the corner of the garden before either the sun or I got up, and slept the dreamless sleep of one who has labored righteously and fed well. I suspect him of letting out his belt a hole a day on this plethora of protein that I had been coaxing up the bean poles all the spring.
After that for the balance of the day Mr. Woodchuck was a dilettante, sitting at his door in the sun and dreaming dreams of artistic elegance in horticulture. I used to see him there about 10 A.M., wrinkling his forehead in the perplexity of artistic temperament, batting a speculative eye at me meanwhile, but not in any spirit of resentment. In fact, he had nothing to resent. He had absorbed the unearned increment and I had my original capital, the bean poles, intact -- and that's more than most of us realize on small investments, nowadays. So I dare say he thought I had nothing to feel grieved about. Later he would sally forth and carry out his artistic dreams on my Hubbard squashes. I have never had Hubbard squashes pruned into such artistic shapes as that year. The squash vine is a great stragger if left to its own devices.
It will start from the corn hill where it is produced and go down the row fifteen feet, then climb a corn stalk, leap to the fence six feet away and eventually hang a row of Hubbard squashes around a neighbor's pet pear tree. The woodchuck stopped all that. He began early in the summer on the vine tips and worked inward well up to the stump at each meal. The vines were husky and had more latent buds than I had believed possible. Every time the woodchuck cut them back they started something in a new place for his incisive pruning shears. Some people trim evergreens on their lawns into grotesque shapes. My woodchuck invented that sort of thing all over again on Hubbard squash vines. After some weeks I had a new and strange race of decorative plants that, like Katisha's left elbow, people came miles to see. But they did not produce squashes. Dilettantism doesn't.
In the end, of course, like the small boy at whose house the minister was to take dinner, I had to get the woodchuck, after which the garden was more productive if not so picturesque and romantic.
The full-grown woodchuck rarely leaves the burrow except to forage. That done he spends some time usually just at the entrance sunning himself. But most of the time, day and night, he is within, presumably asleep half the summer long. The young woodchucks at this time of year are more often seen abroad, for the parents send them forth upon the world to earn their own living at a rather tender age. They roam the fields and thickets and do not seem especially afraid of man, scuttling into the underbrush perhaps with their whistling squeal, but just as likely to sit back on their haunches and offer to fight. The mortality among them at this time must be great. Foxes pick them up and feed them to their own young. Hawks and owls do the same and dogs find them an easy prey. But enough get by such dangers to dig burrows in the fall and next spring move up to somebody's garden patch, there to absorb feasts and defy fates until the outraged householder stalks forth and deals death amid the ruins of his hopes. The woodchuck sitting by his burrow in the far pasture is a friendly little chap, whom I wish well. I would not harm a hair of him. But the woodchuck that has adopted suburban life is a menace of whom I am forced to say in the words of Cato of old "Delenda est Carthago."
The forefathers found the woodchuck here, probably in the first spring garden which they planted over the graves of the dead in Plymouth, saw how much he had eaten and promptly named him, his name meaning "little pig of the woods." Chuck or chuckie is a word of their time, and I dare say now, meaning "little pig." The idea is again expressed in the rather less polite form of "ground hog" and the hereabouts at least, little known "Maryland marmot" is a third. Scientifically he is known as Arctomys monax, being a rodent and classed with the marmots, very close relatives of the squirrels. Perhaps it is through this family affinity that he is able to climb my bean poles.
The woodchuck has one other distinguishing characteristic which deserves reference, that is his ability as a sleeper. As a home body he is great. As an absorber of garden truck he is greater. But when the sun of October swings low in the south and he has become so fat that he seems to roll to and from his burrow on castors is when he shows his most surprising characteristic. Mr. Wardle's fat boy with all his fame never slept as the woodchuck then prepares to sleep, however well he matched his eating. The first chill wind sets him to dragging dry leaves and grass down into the snuggest chamber of his burrow and there a little later he tucks his nose in between his little black-gloved forepaws and goes to sleep. When the woodchuck is leaner he goes to sleep by drowsily sitting upright, his head drooping lower and lower until he finally rolls into a round ball and falls on his side. But in late October the woodchuck is so nearly round with obesity that he cannot roll up and I fancy him just withdrawing his nose and his toes a little farther into himself, and going to sleep in that attitude with a sigh of content. The woodchuck's chief fame seems to rest on this trait, his ability to go to sleep before cold weather and not wake up again until the spring has again brought out the green things for his delectation. To be sure tradition has it that the ground hog comes to the mouth of his burrow on Candlemas Day and looks for his shadow that he may figure out how much longer he may sleep. But that I take to be a mere literary furnishing, like the chuck part of the animal's name, brought from England with the pioneers and adapted to use in this country. Probably it is said in England of the dormouse, which also sleeps winters, as does the woodchuck, though I believe lightly compared with our animal. The woodchuck is far too sound a sleeper to wake up on a February day, whatever the inducements.
is no more to be taken seriously than is the old-time Yankee
which seems to me to emphasize the whole popular conception of the animal. Of all the common New England animals he is the one taken least seriously. Even if he does eat up all our summer garden we are apt to grin as we bear it; or if we do go out and "get" him, we do it with a forgiving, pitying smile.