Back in the day as soon as school let out, we would head to my uncle’s pond (now the Sydney Fuller Preserve, a SLC property) and sit on the bank and admire the billowing pond scum as it made it’s way across the surface. It was bright green and contained big air bubbles as it stretched out over various parts of the pond. If we were lucky we might see a snapping turtle’s shell break the surface or maybe even make eye contact with a bullfrog. There would be dragon flies to watch and mysterious ripples to ponder, but mostly we sat there letting time pass by.
To get to the pond on Mapleton, my best friend and I left Main Street and cut across my grandpa’s field as a shortcut. And at least half of the appeal of the pond was the journey to reach it. We’d navigate our way through grass that was up to our hips, and we might flush a red winged blackbird or two as we made our way through. Naturally we would stop and extract the finest piece of grass and chew on its tender ends or perhaps attempt to make a whistle out of it like our big brothers did. But the real prize in this field was sighting woodchucks. These ground-dwelling squirrels, commonly referred to as groundhogs or woodchucks, can weigh up to 14 lbs. They make subterranean homes beneath our feet with lengthy tunnels and specialized chambers. These plant eaters lead a secret life below ground in a network of passageways which include separate rooms for sleeping, nesting and defecating. My friend and I would be scouting out the main entrance, and it would be well trampled by woodchucks as they are vigilant about keeping a lookout for danger. If we were lucky, we might even catch a glimpse of a woodchuck sitting on his hind legs and surveying his territory. We were only moderately worried about twisting our ankles in one of the den’s many entrance and exit holes. It turns out that woodchucks prefer to be left alone to graze on clover, dandelions and other grasses. They do chew woody stems as they need to keep gnawing to wear down their incisors, otherwise whey would continually grow. That in itself is impressive, and it would save a trip to the dentist to get new veneers if we were more like our woodchuck friends. But I digress. In addition to having very cool teeth, they are built for digging, and are habitat engineers complete with short limbs and useful claws. It has been written that they help maintain healthy soil, and when they are not doing that they raise one litter of pups, known as chucklings and are considered to be highly social, intelligent animals.
Two years ago, on the best day ever, we had a woodchuck appear near our barn, and I saw signs of digging and the beginning of a tunnel. We curbed all activity around the barn to make our piece of property as inviting as possible for our new resident. We held our breath, already envisioning a litter of chucklings grazing on our lawn and thus elevating our status in the neighborhood. But life is full of disappointments, and the woodchuck moved on in a day or two. It took us a long time to get over his absence. I shared my disappointment with a friend who has both a vegetable garden and a resident woodchuck, and it was hard to get her to understand our point of view. I may have swayed her opinion, ever so slightly, when I reminded her that on February 2, Ground Hog Day, she would be on the inside track regarding whether spring would come or not. Now, to get my ground hog fix, I’ll have to head over to her garden where the ground hog feasts on her tomato and zucchini crops. And, in a role reversal, my friend now stands watch over the woodchucks with hands on her hips and a stern countenance.. I am happy to help, minus the negative body language as I prefer to lure the woodchucks in rather than chase them away. I suppose my definition of help may be very different from hers.