Groundhog Day

It’s not his own shadow he looks for
but the shadows of hawks.
He has stirred from hibernation
not to forecast but to inspect
others’ burrows—to scout for mates.
His lust is still containable,
a faint mutter like an underground stream
or a sleepwalker’s obstreperous
small intestine. He serves it
more in faith than in urgency,
a reluctant prophet answering a call,
for he’s exposed to the sky
in a way he isn’t used to:
there’s no grass, no cover,
the meadow has a new, white surface
& the sun too is strange—it gives
no heat. He freezes, wary
as it emerges from its burrow
behind a snowcloud.

Groundhog vs. groundhog

In honor of Imbolc and its buck-toothed seer, I uploaded a sharper copy of some footage I shot two years ago. Groundhogs are among the most solitary of marmots, and I think what we’re seeing here is a territorial dispute over some valuable real estate — the crawlspace under my house.

And as long as we’re watching videos, here’s another one I just uploaded, from the three-banjo jam session. There were other songs they performed more flawlessly, but this is the only one where the video is also half-decent (emphasis on “half”). And yes, it is entirely possible that they interrupted the sleep of the groundhog(s) below the floor.

Lines for a June heat wave

half-grown groundhog
Click to see larger

A half-grown groundhog —
“Wait while I get the camera,” I say,
& it does.


Recognized by its glide,
the first monarch butterfly
back from the south.


In the air-conditioned mall,
the plastic flowers are safe
from the blistering heat.


Drinking from a tap
in the base of an old elm,
a Penn State squirrel.


I run into someone
I first met 17 years ago,
in cicada time.


So good, I don’t want to finish it:
fresh strawberries sliced
into stewed rhubarb.


Inside the package
stamped “Royal Mail,”
a book of small stones.


Driving the tractor into the woods,
mountain laurel blooming
above the roar.


Back from mowing,
I find a ground beetle trapped
in the kitchen sink.


A game in a dream:
no one knows the rules, or how to win.
I wake to heat lightning.

For another view of the half-grown groundhog, see here.

Down and dirty

Election Day Fracas, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Nothing quite says “Earth Day” to me like a battle for supremacy between two magnificent wild animals. Unfortunately, however, I had to settle for a squabble between two groundhogs under and (briefly) in front of my house. Hey, it beats reading yet another stupid email entitled “Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.” (If it were simple, we’d have saved the earth ten times over by now. I’m more in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s camp: if something doesn’t make me angry or at least uncomfortable, it’s probably not true.)

But as I listened to the groundhogs’ threats and screams, and took in the dirt and the abundant flies, I remembered that it was also Primary Election Day here in Punxatawney Phil land. I’m registered Independent myself, so I won’t be participating in this wonderful exercise in sandbox democracy. If there’s hog to be ground — and I imagine there is — I’ll just have to leave that to my fellow Younsers.*

Given the predicted high turnout and the general disorganization at Pennsylvania’s polling places, I’m not too sanguine that this will be over by tomorrow morning, or even by the end of the week. Let me know when it’s safe to come out, O.K.?

groundhog snout

*Younser: An inhabitant of that portion of Pennsylvania where “you’ns” is in common use as a second-person plural pronoun. Younsers give way to Yinzers west of Johnstown.


woodchuck 1

I am watching a woodchuck through the kitchen window as it forages in the black raspberry patch out back. Its fat body fits easily between the canes, as if they had no thorns at all — the pale dead, and the reddish purple arches of the year-old canes, their heads buried in the dirt. The slope is stubbled with nubbins of grass, violets, dandelion, dame’s-rocket. The woodchuck’s jowls wobble as it gobbles the tender greens.

woodchuck 2

I am watching its progress in the small screen on the back of my camera, which I hold a foot from my face. First I see the animal as if in a stained-glass window, its body and the ground around it framed and fragmented by the raspberry stems: ground hog. Then I zoom in on face and fur, shining in the strong sunlight: so much color where until now I’d only noticed brown and gray! How much wood, even freshly split, could you say the same about?

woodchuck 3

But now I’m getting a reflection from the inside. I pull a yellow bottle from the windowsill and it spots the movement, freezes. Dark eyes bore into the camera. Then a waterfall of fur is spilling downslope. A moment later I feel a bump, bump, bump against what I am used to thinking of as a floor. I crouch down and press one palm against the wood.

Previously on Via Negativa: Marmota monax.
See also my mother’s essay, Mad Marmots.

Pear economics

ThoreauMy mother cut up and froze the rest of the peaches from the box marked “Thoreau” and gave it to me to fill with pears. Alas, there’s nothing remotely Thoreauvian about our pear tree, though we haven’t had to prune it in years. It’s a dwarf, genetically identical to every other Bartlett pear tree in the world, and this year, as most years, it was loaded. We are always amazed that this one, 15-foot tree, which looks especially small standing out in the middle of the field, can pack so much fruit into such an economical space. We planted it back in the mid-70s along with five other fruit trees in that location, but we didn’t fully appreciate the necessity of fencing everything from the white-tailed deer then. The Bartlett was the only survivor.

The pears have to be picked unripe; otherwise they fall to the ground and feed the hornets or the deer. Nor do our hoofed friends limit themselves to windfalls. We’ve actually seen them stand up on their hind legs and hop to reach pears as high as seven feet off the ground. Did Thoreau ever have a problem with deer eating his wild apples? No, he did not. There is exactly one reference to deer in Walden. It’s in Chapter 12, “Winter Animals”:

One man still preserves the horns of the last deer that was killed in this vicinity, and another has told me the particulars of the hunt in which his uncle was engaged.

To Thoreau, living in the hey-day of market hunting, the white-tailed deer was a wilderness animal and a creature of legend. In The Maine Woods, he mentions them in the same breath as bear and moose as a denizen of “Ktadin,” the irony being that in fact central Maine is at the northern edge of the white-tailed deer’s natural range. These days, suburban homeowners in the Concord, Massachusetts area probably think of deer the way most Pennsylvania suburbanites do — as hoofed rats — and some probably even keep their kids indoors in the summer so they won’t contract Lyme disease. If Thoreau were alive today, I imagine he would compromise his vegetarian principles enough to join other ecologically minded folks in becoming an enthusiastic promoter of wild venison.

Another creature whose numbers have mushroomed since the eradication of top carnivores and the severe fragmentation of the eastern forest is the woodchuck. When I picked the pears, I left a dozen or so in the topmost branches, figuring the deer would get them when they eventually fell. Not so. Two days later, my mom told me, she, Dad, and my brother Steve watched a woodchuck climb the tree to eat the remaining pears! This is highly unusual behavior — Mom tells me she’s only ever seen it once before.* They’re nicknamed groundhogs for a reason.

When I heard this, I was doubly glad I hadn’t been greedy and picked every last pear. The value of that one wildlife observation — especially to a naturalist writer like my mother — far out-weighs whatever pleasure we would’ve gotten from those dozen, succulent, top-of-the-tree Bartletts.

That’s the sort of accounting Thoreau excelled at. At the time of his death, he was half done writing a book called Wild Fruits, a contrarian work dedicated to the notion that “the less you get, the happier and richer you are.” Thoreau’s take on economics strikes me as considerably saner than the dangerous fantasies of the Chicago School:

It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matter of commerce, that is, you cannot buy the highest use and enjoyment of them. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it. You cannot buy a good appetite even. In short, you may buy a servant or a slave, but you cannot buy a friend.

To me, a good, firm, tart apple is the finest of fruits, and I agree with Thoreau that even wild apples can taste delicious if you come upon them unexpected out in the woods. Pears are a bit like mangoes: soft and sweet and sticky. I enjoy them, but I have a hard time eating more than two or three at a time. Back when I quit smoking, I ate a couple bushels of Stamen Winesap apples in the course of a month, consuming as many as 25 a day and opening my first-ever abdominal savings account in the process. I couldn’t have done that with pears.

But pears were my paternal grandfather’s favorite fruit, and now that Pop-pop’s gone, eating pears from our tree has become an act of remembrance for us. So I filled the Thoreau carton with all the ones I could reach from the ground, then took a second carton up the stepladder, balancing it rather precariously on the top rung.

Since we hadn’t thinned them earlier in the season, many were small, no more than a couple mouthfuls each when they ripen. And of course they will ripen all in a rush, and we’ll do our best to gorge on them, feeling ridiculously wealthy and fortunate — not to mention sticky. And then they’ll be gone, and the box marked “Thoreau” will be put to some other good use.

*This is an update of what I wrote earlier, when I said I thought it was unprecedented.

Don’t forget to send tree-related links to Bev by August 29 for the Festival of the Trees.

One day late

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I spotted this guy in my front yard this morning around nine. He was moving quickly, and clearly had much more urgent things on his mind than meteorological prognostication. Quoting myself (a terrible habit, I know):

Groundhogs are the only solitary marmots… When they rouse in early to mid-February, [the males] do much more than check for a shadow. They pay social visits to all the females within their territories – re-acquaintances made necessary by the fact that woodchucks do move around, whether as a result of juvenile dispersal, or simply to acquire better real estate. The high ratio of females to males that drives this annual peregrination stems partly from the increased exposure of male woodchucks to predators, especially in late winter and early spring when cover is scarce and predators are hungry.

I wonder if this was the same obsessed individual who broke into my parent’s house last October?

Report from the resident naturalist

When I read the following letter from my mother to her nine-year-old granddaughter Eva, it had “blog post” written all over it. As you’ll see, the last couple weeks have been an exciting time for wildlife sightings on the mountain. While I sit inside writing poetry, my mom (naturalist writer Marcia Bonta) is out wandering the mountain, having close encounters with black bears and logging our first-ever sighting of a fisher in Plummer’s Hollow. But sometimes the critters get even closer, as the first part of her letter relates. (Keep in mind that she wrote this quickly, in one draft – like a blog post, but very unlike her usual writing for publication.)

Dear Eva,

Autumn is here. The air is cool and crisp, the sky bright blue, and the temperature was 39 degrees Fahrenheit this morning – not quite the freeze we were promised, but close.

The other day, while writing an article about woodchucks that I had entitled “Mad Marmot,” after the sign on the lab of the professor studying woodchuck hibernation, I had come to the end and wondered how I could write a good conclusion. I had heard bumping noises downstairs and so had Grandpa, but we thought that it was Uncle Dave coming up early for his lunch.

Finally, shortly after noon, I went downstairs to put on the soup. A woodchuck ran across the kitchen floor in front of me. It was the same woodchuck that has been hanging around on the veranda, knocking over our walking sticks in the corner, all summer. I quick slammed the door between the kitchen and the living room and called to Grandpa, “There’s a woodchuck in the kitchen!”

He came running down and propped open the back door. Then we looked around in the kitchen for the woodchuck. Grandpa took a flashlight and looked behind the stove and refrigerator. No woodchuck. Then he looked under the refrigerator. Uh, oh. It was squeezed in the space behind the bottom front panel. (Did I mention that this is a smallish woodchuck?) Anyway, Grandpa pried off the panel and the woodchuck didn’t move. I gave Grandpa a broom and he and Uncle Dave, who had come up by then, tried to persuade Mr. or Mrs. or maybe Ms. Woodchuck to leave. Finally, it made a mad dash for the open back door with Grandpa yelling after it, hoping to discourage it from coming back.

But how had the woodchuck gotten inside? We thought that it must have dug a hole in the foundations down in the basement since it lives in the burrow system under the front porch. But we couldn’t find any hole down there. It remained a mystery until after dinner.

Grandpa went into the living room to sit down and read and he called to me, “Come in here and look at this.”

On the piano he pointed out several fresh scratches and some dirt. I saw a couple long, fresh scratches on the wooden floor. Then he showed me a gaping hole in the screen in the window behind the piano. That woodchuck had climbed up the table we have sitting next to the veranda door and busted its way into the house, landed on the piano, tumbled down on to the floor, probably ran around the living room – because the scratches were over near the spinning wheel – then into the dining room and on into the kitchen.

What had it wanted in our house? Did it want to hibernate? Was it truly a mad marmot, either angry or crazy or both? And why did it show up just when I needed a conclusion to my article?

The next day I went for a late morning walk. I was walking back along the Far Field Road when I noticed a wild grape vine wiggling down below. I stopped and looked. At that very moment, a large mother bear reared up about 30 feet below me and to the side of the shaking grapevine. She started sniffing in my direction and I wondered what to do. I knew that the grapevines were shaking because of cubs. Should I run? Should I stand still? Should I speak to her?

Luckily, she was a peaceful mother. She merely lowered herself back down on all four legs, walked quietly over to what turned out to be one good-sized cub, both looked up at me so I had a good view through my binoculars, then they turned away and walked silently down the slope away from me.

Then the other day I was sitting on Alan’s Bench and heard a “cluck-cluck” behind me. I didn’t move. A hen turkey walked quietly past in the weeds in front of me. Yet I kept hearing the “cluck-cluck” behind me. I sat still for another ten minutes and finally continued my walk. Two turkeys ran out on the trail ahead and another one joined them from the spruce grove. That one had been the clucker.

Between all those animals, and the fisher I saw in the hollow the other week – a very rare species for Pennsylvania – I feel like I’m living in the middle of “Wild Kingdom.”

Love, Nanna

© Marcia Bonta. Used by permission.

My account of our visit last March to the groundhog researcher my mother mentions in the second paragraph can be found here. For another guest blog post from Marcia Bonta – her list of favorite nature books – see here.

The double-take

I don’t recognize these photos that are allegedly of me, someone says on a listserve. That’s not who I am. Growing old never seems real. Childhood was real, and the people around us who were old then seemed as though they must have been that way forever. I remember how my grandma used to hum as she moved around the house, a mostly tuneless hum as far as I could tell. I never asked her about it, but I find I do the same thing now, living in the very same house where she and Grandpa spent their summers when I was a kid. Maybe it’s the same hum, too.

The Baltimore oriole has returned to the yard and the wood thrush to the woods, and it’s difficult to escape the impression that these are the very same individuals that have been coming back to sing every year for the past 35 years. The power of songs to outlive us: this is what makes them the true currency of warm-blooded life, the way they bind an aging pulse to an ageless but no less fragile place in the world.

But now it’s almost dark and the birds are still. It’s Monday evening, and I’m sitting on a stump at the bend of the old woods road, resting somewhere between daydream and meditation, too tired for either.

I find that sleep deprivation interferes with my ability to experience joy. It’s nothing for the body to support tension and irritation, but taking deep pleasure in things requires every faculty we possess and then some. Instead, I find myself increasingly abstracted from my body and all of its superstitious attractions and repulsions. I’m listening for the whip-poor-will rumored to be calling at the far end of the property, but all I hear are things rustling in the leaves, jets high overhead, dogs barking in the valley. One of the planets glimmers through the branches of an oak.

There have been some interesting goings-on lately. One of the turkey hunters told us about a wood duck nesting in a hollow oak tree some fifteen feet off the ground, right on the dry ridgetop. He had been sitting against a tree a short distance away, and the duck kept poking her head out to look at him, he said. The nearest pond of any size is a half-mile away at the base of the mountain. How the mother duck intends to lead her ducklings there is beyond me.

On top of the other ridge, there are a few very small vernal ponds, as I’ve mentioned before, but the last one is rapidly drying up in the drought. My mother was up there gazing at the little puddle that remains and wondering if any of the wood frog tadpoles would make it to maturity, when she heard a rustling in the leaves behind her. She turned around and there was the mother bear walking along with one, two, three small cubs bringing up the rear. This marks the fourth time this bear has raised a litter on our end of the mountain, presuming it’s the same mother each time, which would make her about ten years old. The bears paid my mother no mind, just kept going wherever they were going. It’s a rare privilege for a wildlife watcher to be so completely ignored.

The third sighting last weekend was my own: a pair of Cooper’s hawks that kept calling back and forth in an agitated fashion. As long as I stood still, the male was content to sit and watch me from a safe distance, preening his breast feathers, but as soon as I’d move he’d take off again, making a wide arc through the trees, disappearing completely and then reappearing from a different point of the compass. I examined every tree for hundreds of feet in all directions, but couldn’t see any sign of a nest. Like the black bear, these Cooper’s hawks have become regular breeders on the mountain, but only once in the past four years have we managed to find their nest.

The thing I like about nature in general is the sense of complete unpredictability and spontaneity within regular cycles of events. Over at Slow Reads, Peter reports on groundhogs that run unexpectedly straight toward him – and an eccentric neighbor who knows just what to do.

The farmer begins to prance in a circle, raising his hands and knees high and lowering them, and the groundhogs just follow him, prancing in their own way.

Or so his friend Michael told him. I have my doubts. But while Peter was photographing the back end of a rebuffed woodchuck, “Rurality” was face-to-face with a gray rat snake.

I tried to snap a shot when he was scoping me out with his tongue, but none of them turned out too well, and after a while he quit doing it…

I tried to prod him into leaving, but by that time he’d become too relaxed and didn’t want to leave.

The problem with wildlife-watching, it seems, is that the wildlife watches back. This elementary truth sometimes seems lost on those who want nature to resemble a made-for-television drama. I remember a visiting friend one time declining my offer for a guided tour of our woods: “I’ve seen trees before. Boring!” Indeed. Where’s the drama? Most animals spend most of their waking hours doing nothing, wildlife researchers tell us. They have plenty of time to sit and contemplate the frantic to-and-froing of human beings.

Night comes while I wait: I certainly can’t complain about the service! I’m sitting here not expecting anything to happen, and the closer I get to accepting that there is nothing that needs to happen, the straighter I sit. Even in my sleep-deprived state, I’m enjoying the stillness.

But it isn’t like that, really: my life, I mean, or yours either. Apparent stillness is simply an artifact of defective hearing; as I grow older, I should have many occasions to revel in the growing silence. Or maybe I’ll just a hum a little louder. And in all likelihood someone will come by here tonight – on four feet, perhaps, or on two wings – and in the darkness we will recognize each other, we will do what they call a double-take. Any moment now.

Marmota monax

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This enigmatic megalith measures about seven feet tall and sits all by itself in the middle of a lawn behind the old sheep barns on the Penn State Berks campus, near Reading, Pennsylvania.

Earlier, travelling east on U.S. Route 22 between Huntingdon and Lewistown, we had passed a barn with huge letters painted on the side: “At the End of the Road, I Will Meet God.” An hour later, on an off-ramp of I-81, we got rear-ended, but far from meeting our maker, the car sustained no damage whatsoever, thanks to the trusty tire-carrier. (The other car did get its hood crunched a little.)

We had come to the Berks campus not to meet God, but to interview the foremost groundhog scientist in the state and to tour his study area. Stam Zervanos describes himself as a physiological ecologist, and for the past six or seven years his research has focused on the biological rhythms of woodchucks, a.k.a groundhogs, a.k.a. Marmota monax. Berks campus grew up around a couple of old farms, and it includes a mixture of habitats ideal for the ecotone-loving marmots. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Zervanos’s incredibly dedicated assistant, June, the grounds crews at Berks have learned to tolerate groundhog burrows just about everywhere, including in the flower beds and right next to the library. The 60-acre study site currently supports a population of about 30 chucks.

The heart of the study area is in a wildflower meadow adjacent to the horticulture department’s experimental garden. Several woodchucks have had their privacy permanently violated by the implantation of radio transmitters in their abdomens and the installation of motion-triggered cameras outside their burrows. Body temperature information is collected every hour throughout the hibernation period, which in Pennsylvania lasts from early November to early March.

There are two types of mammalian hibernation, Dr. Zervanos explained. Woodchucks, like chipmunks and jumping mice in our area, go into deep torpor, meaning that body temperature goes down below 20 degrees Centigrade. Black bears, by contrast, maintain a body temperature between 25-30 degrees, and can rouse fairly easily.

The data collected so far show a pattern of regular awakening every week to ten days throughout the winter. Males are lighter hibernators than females, waking up more often and maintaining slightly more elevated temperatures. Some speculate that this periodic reawakening may be related to a need to maintain muscle tone. But at this point, how animals in hibernation or estivation maintain muscle tone remains a mystery.

The regular arousals appear to have social benefits. Groundhogs are the only solitary marmots, although June showed us one, rare exception – a burrow currently shared by two young males. When they rouse in early to mid-February, male woodchucks do much more than check for a shadow. They pay social visits to all the females within their territories – re-acquaintances made necessary by the fact that woodchucks do move around, whether as a result of juvenile dispersal, or simply to acquire better real estate. The high ratio of females to males that drives this annual peregrination stems partly from the increased exposure of male woodchucks to predators, especially in late winter and early spring when cover is scarce and predators are hungry. I can’t help wondering if monogamous co-habitation wouldn’t be a more sensible approach. But doubtless that would merely result in over-population, as it has for humans.

Following this rare burst of sociality they return to their burrows and go back to sleep; mating only commences after final emergence in March. So it seems that having biorhythmically timed arousals and emergences helps keep local populations on the same wavelength, so to speak – males can be reasonably certain to find females awake when they make their February rounds, and again during mating season.

However, up to ten percent of Pennsylvania woodchucks don’t hibernate at all. This is surprising, since the main reason for going into deep torpor is to make it through the long months when forage is unavailable. Apparently, southern groundhogs may never hibernate, though this remains to be verified by scientists. But during a severe drought back in 1999, Dr. Zervanos and his assistants found that their study animals were going into deep torpor on a daily basis in the middle of the summer to conserve water and energy.

A new theory holds that torpor patterns in mammals can be traced back to our reptilian ancestors. Some lineages that subsequently lost the ability to hibernate, such as primates, may still posses genes that could be switched back on, if they haven’t already mutated too much. The study of hibernation may yield some medical insights or applications, Dr. Zervanos told us, since deep torpor apparently interrupts the activities of viruses, and possibly of internal parasites as well.

June showed us the burrow of one female in the middle of a small woodlot who only hibernated for the first time this year. The previous two winters she had stayed awake, and not coincidentally, didn’t bear a litter in the spring – her body was probably much too weakened. This made me wonder if perhaps skipping hibernation wasn’t a deliberate attempt at avoidance of estrus? June did say that this was an unusually anti-social individual.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWoodchuck personalities can be quite diverse. June told us about some that are completely placid, and seem to enjoy their periodic captures once they find out about the fine marmot cuisine she whips up for them. Others remain unremittingly hostile. These personality differences seem mirrored by their divergent choices of home burrows. Some groundhogs nest right in the middle of cornfields, which are as devoid of forage as woodlots. Dr. Zervanos was surprised to hear about the groundhogs we occasionally find living deep in our wooded hollow, but it is apparently not uncommon for them to share burrow complexes with other species, such as skunks, porcupines, raccoons and opossums. This is the situation under my house, which has more things that go bump in the night than you can shake a stick at. Regular readers may recall my occasional descriptions of animals fighting viciously right under the floorboards where I type. In many cases, these are probably male woodchucks in a territorial dispute.

It occurs to me that such diversity in personality and choice of home site is probably highly advantageous for a habitat-generalist species. How much of our own vaunted individualism stems from our ecological role as highly adaptive, edge- or savanna-dwelling scavengers?

Various woodchucks were out and about during our visit. While the sight of a distant chuck is nothing out of the ordinary for us, it was interesting to see how attentively the researchers watched them. “I’ve developed a groundhog eye,” June said when we marveled at how easily she picked out a brown animal against a brown background from several hundred yards away. “I’m always spotting them from my car now, everywhere I go.”

It’s always inspiring to meet people who are keenly observant and deeply involved in the study of something for its own sake. We were also impressed by how generous both researchers were with their time. My mother plans to incorporate much of what we learned into her “Naturalist’s Eye” column in Pennsylvania Game News magazine. I hadn’t really planned to blog about our visit, so I wasn’t particularly well prepared, and didn’t write down any good quotes. I didn’t even think to ask some of the most obvious questions, such as: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck? Are there any plans for a woodchuck webcam? And what was up with that strange, vaguely groundhog-shaped megalith behind the sheep barns?