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Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Woodchuck Summer -- Part 2

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 19, 2006.) "A Woodchuck Summer, Part 2" follows "A Woodchuck Summer, Part 1," published on August 5, 2006.
Lady luck, Eve’s constant companion and
benefactor, gave her many opportunities
to live until the days when she would
get by on her own survival skills.
As the midday sun grew hot the woodchucks limited their feeding forays to mornings and evenings, satisfying their ravenous appetites on clover, alfalfa, trefoil, dandelions, and other vegetarian delights.

As quickly as the rains dissolved the nutrients in the soil, the roots pulled nourishment up into the plants. Sun-driven photosynthesis pushed the grasses to heights tall enough to afford more protection to Josie and her remaining chucks. While a woman came by occasionally to mow the small, desolate cemetery nearby, the hayfield grew with abandon and so did Josie’s pups. The den was crowded, even more after the demise of Jake and Woody, because the quartet that remained were the size of small adults by the time July arrived.

The cemetery was a magnet for wildlife. Deer used its edges for an evening staging area before coming out of the trees. Doves, robins, grackles and other ground-feeding birds found abundant crickets and earthworms in the short grass. Skunks mined the turf for grubs, and squirrels perched on the tombstones, chattering at every interruption.

Jane led Suzy on ventures away from the den, but the cemetery was too uncomfortable, too risky for Suzy. The tombstones seemed like protection for Jane, but Suzy saw them as hiding places for predators. Jane wandered beyond the ancient markers, often arriving at the roadway. Suzy never ventured more than a few feet into the graveyard.

Although the first few cars that whizzed by frightened Jane, she gradually became accustomed to them. They never veered from the hard surface and merely caused a cooling wind -- a pleasant but brief reprieve from the summer heat. One day Jane noticed a healthy tuft of coltsfoot along the berm on the opposite side of the road. She never saw the truck coming. She was dead before the air currents were stilled.

By mid-summer, many woodchucks leave the birthing den and set out for independence, so Jane’s absence was not unusual. Suzie was the only one to truly miss her. Several times she went to the cemetery to look for Jane, expecting to find her brave sister contentedly grazing.

On July 3, excitement and fear ruled the day. Distant rumbling, more constant than thunder, forecasted a change to the woodchucks’ way of life. It became louder until it arrived beside the great old oak that sheltered Josie’s den. In a moment, it would severe all the grass and lay it on the ground. The barren earth brought insecurity to the woodchucks. They stayed deep in their burrows most of the time, venturing out only briefly to refresh themselves with the dew on the stubble.

As the mower approached, Eve sat up near the spy hole of the den to see what the mysterious racket was. The blade scraped the dirt around the main entrance and the farmer lifted the cutting bar to clear the mound. He lowered it cautiously to avoid damage. As Eve dove for safety, the blade clipped most of her tail.

That wasn’t the only close shave Eve had experienced. A few days after Woody’s tragedy, the coyote was back for seconds. He surprised her by lying in wait at the mouth of the den. When she came out, he dashed at her. Not expecting her to stop, he overran her, giving her the chance to reverse direction under his legs and dive back into the den. Once, in early June, the farmer’s 13 year old son fired a .22 at her from the edge of the woods. The bullet hit the dirt in front of her nose, dusting her and throwing dirt into her eyes.

Lady luck was Eve’s constant companion and benefactor, and gave her many opportunities to live until the days when she would get by on her own survival skills.

Mark was not so lucky. He was a sitter, spending much of his time sitting up, surveying the landscape. He was the kind of target woodchuck hunters want, because a vertical target forgives errors in range estimation.

As Mark sat one day, hundreds of yards away two marksmen with flat-shooting rifles watched him through binoculars. Mark was unaware that danger could threaten from so far away. He slumped and was gone, never even hearing the shot. The bullet was quick and humane. Of the seven woodchucks born to Josie, Eve and Suzie were all that was left to provide seed for future generations.


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