‘trying to fool mother nature’

ON GROUNDHOG DAY I am always reminded of another holiday: the Fourth of July, and specifically my first Independence Day on this piece of land, decades ago. To mark Groundhog Day, I offer a vintage essay on trying to fool Mother Nature, and being proved the fool instead.

It was a different winter then, and in so many ways a whole different era, but I think there’s still something left in this old piece of writing, anyhow (though not a definitive answer on how to outdo a woodchuck, sorry; that’s over here instead.). Enjoy.

‘trying to fool mother nature’

(from ‘Newsday’ newspaper garden column, 1989)

TODAY IS THE DAY when thoughts officially turn to the potential coming of spring, but on Groundhog Day, my troubled mind can’t let go of memories of Fourth of July. Just the mention of anything groundhog, in fact, and those guilt-laden synapses of mine take me right to that Independence Day not long ago and an ill-advised display of underground fireworks.

I tried to off a groundhog with a smoke bomb.

There, I feel better now that I’ve shared it.

At that time, like many city people, I fought the way thing are, or at least objected to it energetically. The first year in the country house, we fought everything, I recall, not just the groundhog (or woodchuck, as we knew him to be called). On the morning after a harsh snowstorm, for example, we tried to travel back to the city, and in this self-important misadventure, learned a whole new meaning for the term respect.

We fought the deer, who for generations had been coming to eat beneath the apple trees we now insisted were ours; the mice, who asked only a warm place–our bedroom wall–to raise their children. We fought the logic that says that moss, not flowers, grows on the north side of a house, and we even fought each other.

Neither skiers nor children eager to fashion Frosty on the front lawn, we moaned about snow simply because it was inconvenient, because it slowed us down. Now, several winters wiser, we pray for the stuff. It is nectar, sustenance. We have seen the devastation a winter windstorm can deal unto the naked garden, where no white blanket lies in place to soften the blow.  When it melts around this time of year, we pray for more with all our might.

Beneath it, all manner of plant and animal life–even the groundhog–might sleep in safety until spring.  Without it, they are like shivering homeless on the city streets.

This February morning, Punxsutawney Phil will raise his sleepy head toward the exit of his manmade bedroom burrow in Punxsutawney, Pa., aided by a human handler whose job it is to make him forecast the season ahead. The Blob, which is what a groundhog looks like, mostly, will either see or not see his shadow, depending on the strength of the late-winter sun. If he does, it’s back to bed for six more weeks; sorry, no early spring. The whole thing stems from an ancient Scotch couplet: “If the sun is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”

I, for one, hope winter stays around awhile longer. I hope the rest of the winter, which hasn’t seemed like a winter to me at all yet, will bring lots of water to the earth in whatever form, however inconvenient, however messy. I hope it snows and sleets and rains and hails all over the country, every day if necessary, because recent droughts are too clear in my memory for me to hope otherwise.

I remember years when a third of the United States, or more, was parched deep into the subsoil, aching for those healing waters. Any gardener who has lost even one lettuce seedling to an unexpected April heat wave, or one potted plant when it baked on the radiator, should realize what that means: Without a proper sequence of the passing seasons, without the “inconvenient” weather like rain and sleet and even snow, there would be no farming and nor gardening, no flowers and no food.

I know, it’s been bright and pretty a lot of recent mornings, and you haven’t had to fight the chapping winds to get to work or school.  Besides, you think, the trouble’s worse in some other region, not mine, and so it’s all right to feel safe and happy that’s it’s spring two months too soon.

It’s not right, and it’s not safe.


My groundhog did not die, by the way, that unpleasantly memorable Fourth of July, he didn’t even bat a droopy lid at the pair of fools who sealed off the doors of his burrow with big stones after dropping a smoke bomb down one end. He just sat up high on his haunches, as his breed is inclined to do, watching from the distant third opening to his subterranean home. If we had more experience, or if we had only asked one of the many local farmers, we’d have known the burrow probably had more than two openings.  We would have known that the groundhog had more sense than two flatlanders, as we of the city streets are sometimes not so fondly called in our unfamiliar rural home.

The rest of the summer–or was I being paranoid?–he seemed to devote to watching me garden, a kind of hairy conscience lingering over my shoulder. All would be well in the garden when, suddenly, a rustling in the brush on the nearby hillside would herald his arrival.

“He’s planning his retaliation,” I would say to myself, wondering what tasty morsel he planned to make his crudite for the day. Day after sunny day, he watched me, until I finally lost it, and began to shout at him with the conviction in my voice that he should listen, that he should understand, that he should even respond.

I was fighting again, a sorry sight, and though he never ate a thing from that year’s summertime garden, the woodchuck had already won.


The image of me and my pet woodchuck (kidding!) comes from an old “Popular Science” magazine, after I finally just gave up, and invited him in. (Garden doodle of Margaret’s Supermarket by Andre Jordan,)

Categorieswoo woo
  1. susan says:

    I look forward to the snow, I find that I do slow down a bit. It makes life a little difficult, but how pretty it is and yes we need the water.
    I have a huge family of woodchucks here at my house and will be starting gardens. I hope they will let me share there land.

  2. Paige says:

    Apparently, there’s another rhyme for Feb. 2nd forecasts:
    If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
    Winter will have another flight.
    But if Candlemas day bring clouds and rain,
    Winter is gone and won’t come again.

    But that doesn’t excuse attempted groundhogicide.

  3. Ailsa says:

    My first up-close-and-personal experience with groundhogs was through my first dog, Riley, who one day in winter appeared from around the corner of a giant city compost heap with a large, flat, frozen groundhog body in her mouth. She had to walk like a cowboy, with her two front legs splayed so she wouldn’t trip over her delectable parcel.
    More recently, I have come to know them in my parent’s garden, which backs onto greenspace. I have noticed they prefer anything in the Asteracea family, and even ate the tops from the Rue plants I circled around the birdbath to protect the birds from hungry cats.
    Do you have recommendations for groundhog-proof plants that I can replace the asters, echinacea, etc. with?
    BTW, your story reminded me of Michael Pollan’s in Second Nature.

  4. David Brogren says:

    groundhogs are a big big pain. We have a big old woodpile of willow that ain’t worth the trouble to burn. The hogs hang out there and make nocturnal trips to razor cut our flowers and anything else they choose from the garden favorites. My 25 cal pellet rifle is effective a pretty long range when they sit up on the woodpile and shake their fist at me. Ahhh but in the end they must consider me a good landlord, cause they sure don’t move out of the neighborhood….

  5. Grace says:

    Years ago when I lived in the heart of St Paul I looked out the window and there was a woodchuck sitting on the seat of my daughters bicycle with it’s front paws on the handlebars. I ran for the camera but was too late to get a picture. It’s one of those experiences that only I saw and everyone who hears it listens with humor and a bit of doubt. I swear it is the truth.


  6. John at JWLW says:

    Woodchucks!! they are a thing of the past here we deported them all “that is until another one moves in” then it will get deported.

    We had “Woody” live under our porch for years, but then she had to many babies and they ate too many flowers, so the all got deported to another location. To date none have returned and no new one have tried to move in.
    lots of them in the neighborhood but none in our Yard.

    Never had one come out on Grounghog Day so we just had to wait and see when spring would arrive.


  7. John Willis says:

    A great story and wonderful confession. We resort to traps and take them one by one to a woodchuck vacation resort down by the river (I think there were 9 one year). I think there will always be a new one to take assume their rightful place. Oh, and sometimes there are the unexpected catches like the racoon and the skunk. Great fun!

  8. diana says:

    I was chased by 2 groundhog, although we call them marmots out here. We stopped for lunch and I sat on a nice big rock when all of a sudden I saw 2 marmot “galloping” toward me. I stood up expecting them to stop but they kept coming at me. So I casually got up and started, first walking then running away. My husband thought it was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing. I suspect I was sitting on top of their family. I’m lucky to have escaped with my life. ;o)

  9. themanicgardener says:

    Oh, that was a fine story, though almost upstaged by Diane’s. I’ve never heard of being attacked by marmots. Very tidy creatures, though; they have a toileting area in their rock piles, quite blanketed in droppings. I wonder if eastern woodchucks are similarly fastidious.

  10. Country gardener says:

    Enjoyed your revisit of that essay, and I love ya for pointing out that all this moisture, even in the form of snow is a good thing. (I still have the scars from the once-in-50-year drought of 2007, and so do my trees.)

    Cheers, Yvonne

  11. hyperating says:

    Never tangled with a groundhog down my way.

    My eternal war rages with voles and moles. There have been times where I could pinpoint their locations, and have felt tempted to rub them out, but just couldn’t run them through.

    Instead, I let Loki and Athena do the dirty work. Siamese rescues make the best garden cats. When it comes to to rodents, my Asian feline assassins are very efficient.

  12. Elaine says:

    What a wonderful story. I am glad that you learned to coexist with the woodchucks and the deer. I hope you do get a lot more snow and I hope that we get rain here in California. They are already talking drought here which frightens me. I might start doing some rain dances.

  13. Nancy says:

    Our groundhog, “Chuck”, lived contentedly for many years under our back deck. Every spring we would think, oh he’s probably passed on to that great garden in the sky, but one day there he would be in our lawn, happily eating weeds. He was very well mannered- ate only broadleaf lawn weeds, never even tried to dig under the garden fence. We peacefully coexisted, year after year. Even our dogs didn’t bother him. It was only when we “adopted” a feral cat who claimed our yard as his own, that Chuck finally thought “there goes the neighborhood” and found someplace else to live. We kind of miss him, and our lawn certainly has more weeds in it now!

  14. Candace says:

    I loved your groundhog story. My husband and I have been in our old stone farmhouse for 25 years and have nurtured our groudhogs as if they were our children. One has a den in one of the stalls in our barn and is always eating the corn I put out for the ducks, geese and deer. We brag about how fat it is. Yes, once in awhile when I wake up on a summer’s day and peer out back at our garden, I do see it in the midst of my flowers munching away and run outside and scold it, but always tell myself that they were here long before I was and will be long after I am gone.

    1. margaret says:

      @Candace: You are much more tolerant than I. And by the way, if you ever visit on garden-tour days, leave those particular “children” at home. :) He probably would hate the car ride, anyhow.

  15. Marcy says:

    I have tried to make peace with the ground hogs but it is no use. They are so greedy. They have ruined every garden for as long as I can remember. I got a dog to try and deter them, but, no use. Last Easter my neighbors and I tried the smoke bomb. (to see if he could roll away the stone) Alas he was resurrected and did more damage than ever to me and all of my neighbors as well. I was thinking Groundhog day this year; catch them while they are sleeping. Someone said give them bubble gum, but that sounds too gruesome. Sorry to the lady who keeps them as pets. I really do hate the idea of killing them. But we have have-a hearted around for 15 years. All the wasted time and money. THEY HAVE CROSSED THE LINE. They just don’t share.

  16. Ellen says:

    @Diana…too funny. It’s a great visual! My ground hogs have not attacked me, as yet…but, they are greedy little buggers! I would not mind if they only nibbled a little here and there. I would gladly share, but they just gorge and they don’t stop till it is all gone!

    I fenced in my gardens last year and it worked. They ate the peas that hung over the fence, but I didn’t mind…..do you think they appreciated my sharing? I hope so. My sister in law has ground hogs that dig under and climb over her fences….fortunately, her ground hogs don’t hang around with mine.

  17. Jenny Young says:

    My favorite woodchuck story….. about 10 yrs ago I was walking across our meadow…which was then a ‘nicely mowed lawn’ with my black lab running around me & a leashed little Yorkie that I was pet sitting. I look ahead & see one of our resident groundhogs just as he sees me. Moments later, the lab Daisy spies the groundhog as well. For a moment, we all freeze. Then the chubby woodchuck takes off….running straight toward us like a game of chicken!

    I am screaming like a banshee. Ellie the Yorkie is ready to tear the groundhog apart but is wrapping her leash around my legs in an attempt to get away. Daisy takes up the game & runs straight to the foe. I keep screaming….Why! Why is he running straight toward us?!

    Daisy leaps, they roll together, scrapping down the hill. Then the groundhog finds his feet & runs off into the ravine at the bottom.

    Woodchuck 1 Me ) in the game of chicken.

    After we all calmed down & caught our breath I realized that the closest entrance to his burrow was between us. So he wasn’t running to me, he was running to his door. So was that really a win?

  18. Robert Roggeveen says:

    What a lovely essay… drawn from what must be a kind of treasure chest. A delightful piece to read on another snowless morning in Connecticut. At least we have had rain, though snow. Perhaps we will yet get February’s gift of snow. Thank you for both the essay and the story of the pet groundhogs. Sometimes I think, especially when I respond to the blue jays’ call for peanuts with peaniuts, that they must sometimes “see” us as their pets, or, at least, semi-useful companions. I saw yesterday when it was below zero here that they, and the other birds, and the squirrels, and perhaps some nocturanl visitors were “happy” to have the open water to drink along with the suet and the seed.

    I always look forward to your columns, and podcasts… thank you.

  19. Karl Zimmerman says:

    If you want to lose groundhogs, get yourself a Boston terrier. My landlady’s BT is DEATH on anything he can catch, including groundhogs bigger than he is. I tried once to make him let go of one, but he ran all over the yard away from me with the animal in his mouth until he killed it. I tend to have greater sympathy for them now……

  20. Deb Polansky says:

    Love it! We battled woodchuck/groundhogs back then. Still do. Thanks for staying true all these years. You are a beacon of garden sanity.

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