I thought I’d made my peace with them. It hadn’t been easy. Six years ago, a woodchuck family set up a compound on our property. They burrowed tunnels in the mowing field, behind a rotting log near the compost heap, and (appropriately enough) under the woodpile beside my writing studio. From time to time while I was working, I’d be overcome with the eerie sensation that I was being watched. I’d turn in my chair, and there, staring at me through the screen door with an unblinking and quizzical expression would be a woodchuck. They looked cute, I’ve got to give them that, waddling around in their little fur coats, galumphing across the lawn, sitting up on their chubby hind legs as they nibbled this or that piece of the landscape.
Therein lay the problem. The woodchuck or groundhog, officially Marmota monax, is an herbivore. And a big eater. They seem to prefer soft mild greens and flowers, such as pansies and snapdragons, young dahlia shoots and tender hollyhocks. But, if pressed and particularly hungry, they’ll eat just about anything. And they did. My potted urns — with their careful arrangements of geraniums, coleus, and petunias — were cleaned out like so many bowls of pretzels during the Super Bowl. Anything shorter than three feet high in the front border was mowed down. The innocent and lovely plants which I’d nurtured, fertilized, watered, and loved — were ravaged, stalks left dangling and broken. Each morning, when I came out to survey the overnight damage, my outrage grew.
I finally turned to our local Orkin man, who brought in his “wildlife expert.” Traps were baited and set strategically around the property. After a week, the woodchucks had been “disappeared.” It’s illegal to catch and release them in the Berkshires. They were all put down. After my bloodlust ebbed, I began to feel pretty awful about it. It helped that my garden slowly recovered. Poor little guys, I thought. They were only doing what comes naturally.
Most years since, we’ve seen one or two of them around, but I got the feeling word had spread in the marmot community about what happened to the family that had once set up house there. I assumed some kind of warning had been sent out along the woodchuck grapevine: our place was bad news.
It was our cat who first alerted me to the fact that they were back. Hair on end, he whimpered and clicked his teeth at the fat balls of fur that perambulated around the back lawn, lunching on the clover. That evening I realized the pansies had been ripped out of the urns and tossed around the yard like beanbags. This time, however, my flower beds served as mere appetizers. The next morning I noticed the hill of dirt and pebbles by the corner of our vegetable garden … the tunnel under the metal fencing, just wide enough for a small animal with a large appetite … the rows of mesclun and butter lettuces now just so much wilted confetti … the bean sprouts snapped off … the pea trellises mauled … the nasturtium seedlings scattered like wedding rice across the raised beds.
The following, excerpted from a poem by Maxine Kumin, perfectly summarizes my current start of mind. For more poems by Pulitzer Prize-winner Maxine Kumin, please visit: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/woodchucksWoodchucks Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range. Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots. The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses. Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next. O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith. There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day. All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep…