groundhog day: john burroughs on a flabby beast
I HAVE LITTLE (NOTHING?) GOOD TO SAY about woodchucks, Marmota monax, even on their namesake Groundhog Day today. The only American animal with a holiday named for it simply makes me crazy by using my garden as a banquet table in any year he manages to get a foothold. My favorite nature writer, John Burroughs (1837-1921), didn’t have much use for the beasts, either—though he did name one of his Catskill Mountain houses Woodchuck Lodge.
Burroughs also wore a woodchuck coat (from which I infer that they were plentiful on his mountainside, and that he was a good shot). He wrote:
“In form and movement the woodchuck is not captivating. His body is heavy and flabby. Indeed, such a flaccid, fluid, pouchy carcass I have never before seen. It has absolutely no muscular tension or rigidity, but is as baggy and shaky as a skin filled with water.”
Not exactly complimentary; hope nobody speaks about me like that. Read Burroughs’s entire woodchuck passage from “Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers” (1875), or download the entire book from Project Gutenberg, which also has his essays on birds; his book “In the Catskills,” and various other selected writings free of charge. (The vintage print above is from the book.)
I’ve ranted about woodchucks before, and in my early years here (on Fourth of July, not Groundhog Day) I even tried to off one. There were fireworks, indeed, when I set the roots of a tree on fire in the process. True. The woodchuck? He watched the pyrotechnics in amusement, as I recall, then trotted off to have another meal on me.