Down at Oley Valley Feed the other day, I overheard some old timers talking about the blizzard of March 1958. I looked it up and, sure enough, the unpredicted ’58 blizzard, with its death toll estimated at half a million, made our present weather look like a walk in the sunshine by comparison. See for yourself:
Half a million? Perhaps that figure was revised downward over time? Or maybe they were talking about groundhogs?
At any rate, I’m tired of the weather and I’m sure you are, too, unless you are a snowboarding fanatic or a cross country skier. So I will talk about groundhogs instead, and in particular, poems about groundhogs. Punxsutawney Phil is too affiliated with winter to deserve mention here and everybody knows the tongue twister How much wood would a woodchuck chuck …. So I’ll start out with an old Pennsylvania Dutch couplet I remember hearing when I was a kid:
Remember me when far, far off
Where grundsaus die of whooping cough.
As this couplet suggests, the death of the cuddly little garden terror stirs up all kinds of literary passions. Believe it or not, I farmed for ten years without killing a single groundhog, even though the comically obese vegetarian had cleaned me out of peas and frisee and romaine lettuce on numerous occasions. When a groundhog snuck into my heated greenhouse one March afternoon to sup on my ready-to-harvest mesclun greens, I finally retaliated. I wrote about the experience and showed what I had written to a chef, Dave Pasternack, who was grumbling over the absence of mesclun greens in his delivery that week and he, unbeknownst to me, passed on what I had written to Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine, who published the piece in Gourmet. As everybody except me figured would happen, the piece unleashed a barrage of letters to the editor, with 99.9% of those letters falling under the classification of hate mail. I belonged in the lowest depths of hell for murdering the adorable little creature whose only mistake was that he enjoyed my lettuce. People were canceling their subscriptions to Gourmet and sponsoring a boycott of all of my vegetables and all of the restaurants who purchased my vegetables.
So much for the adoring public I had hoped for on account of Gourmet’s huge circulation! At last, somebody forwarded to the editor a letter of commiseration for my experience along with a poem, called Woodchucks, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Maxine Kumin, who died earlier this month at the age of 88. Here is Kumin’s paeon to the cuddly wuddly garden denizen:
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.
If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.
From Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, by Maxine Kumin, published by Penguin Books. Copyright © 1972, 1982 by Maxine Kumin. Online Source
And here, with utmost humility, is my own contribution to the genre of dead groundhog poems, written back when the war was raging in Iraq:
In his hour of tumble and mirth,
amid fields knee-high with budding grasses,
someone clocked him on one of the farm roads.
Early on, I looked for him each day
when I passed. Heat inflated him:
That much he had in common with the mealy, splay-
legged soldiers Matthew Brady
captured at Antietam.
December now, two Decembers since:
Old bone tooth is propped up
next to the road,
shrink wrapped in his
His changes have become more gradual.
A thousand some-odd soldiers
have fallen since he fell. On my way to wherever,
I forget to watch out for him.
Perseveres, this monument
to a chuckling appetite, well-wisher
for the passing motorist, survivor
beyond his years: Carcass
In spite of the weather, your shares this week are full of the kind of greenhouse grown greens Punxsutawney Phil would love to sink his needle teeth into, if only he had not seen his shadow earlier this month! Pea shoots, spinach, broccoli rabe, kale, mache. Thanks to the cold, the carrots are sweeter than ever. Stay warm and don’t forget to sign up for the Summer CSA!