By Greg Clark, July 18, 1936
“Groundhogs,” said Jimmie Frise, “are at their best right now.”
“For eating?” I begged.
“For shooting,” said Jim. “The fields are deep with grain or clover. The groundhogs have lost that anxious alertness of the spring. Fat and free, they sit on their little mounds. They make a perfect target.”
“A target, eh?” I asked.
“An animated target,” said Jim. “The mind of man can’t discover any other use for a groundhog. Their meat is too soft. Their fur is sleazy and thin. The divine purpose of a groundhog, as far as I can figure, is to provide an animated target for farm boys and city sportsmen in the offseason.”
“Hmmm,” said I.
“The bad points of a groundhog are well known,” said Jim. “They not only cat crops, such as winter wheat, clover and so forth. I’ve known farmers to have their entire crop of brussels sprouts ruined by groundhogs. But in addition to their damage to crops, groundhogs cause a lot of damage to horses, Horses step in groundhog holes and break their legs.”
“The survival of the fittest,” I explained. “Nature realizes that the horse has numerous and powerful friends, while the groundhog has none.”
“As a matter of fact,” said Jim. “I can’t figure out why Nature ever invented a groundhog. It has no earthly use.”
“Nature,” I stated, “didn’t figure the way man was going to steal the show when she did her designing. She simply set loose a lot of guesses. Nature is a gambler. She doped out a few hundred designs and then sat back and said go to it.”
“Wouldn’t it have been swell if the groundhogs had won?” jeered Jimmie.
“I can’t think of any life more agreeable than a groundhogs,” I admitted. “They have no economic value, therefore they are not enslaved like the cow and the horse and dog. Their fur is valueless, therefore they have not met the fate of the beaver and the fox. Their meat is of no interest, therefore they are not hunted as deer are.”
“Thank heaven,” said Jim, “for the sporting instinct of humanity, or the entire face of the earth would now be pitted with groundhog holes.”
“A groundhog,” I continued, “has a delightful life. Unlike the fox and the raccoon, he lives in a dugout of his own building, safe from life’s war. A nice warm dugout, with two or three entrances in case of danger. On his fast little legs he can jump into one of his dugout entrances at the first sign of hawk or human. He is a wise baby who digs his home in the midst of human endeavor. He selects a nice clover or grain field, and makes himself a home where he won’t have to move more than ten jumps from any one of his strategic entrances.”
“They’re stupid,” said Jim. “They sit erect like fools, right on the doorsill of their burrows, a perfect target.”
“In time,” I countered, “the groundhogs will learn that they can’t take any chances with men. The more groundhogs learn about us humans, the more they will develop long range rifles and telescope sights. So that in time, no groundhog will ever sit up at the door of his burrow. That is Nature’s way. Don’t think men are entitled to win in this gamble of Nature. Sooner or later, one of the other contestants in the race will get the bulge on us. And believe me, it will be a bulge.”
Winter Doesn’t Bother Him
“Do you mean,” demanded Jimmie, “that groundhogs might some day conquer the human race?”
“Why not?” I inquired. “Just because we humans have been top dogs for a few million years recently is no reason to suppose that Nature’s gamble is ended. The way men have been behaving lately. I’m willing to put a bet on the beetles at any reasonable odds.”
“Beetles!” ughed Jim. “Make it groundhogs.”
“Think,” I said, “of the way groundhogs hibernate during the winter. There is reals civilization. There is genuine economy. A groundhog. when the time comes, simply goes down into the deepest depth of his dugout, curls up, draws a few pebbles and handfuls of sand around him, and goes to sleep. Not for him are the hardships and rigors of winter. Not for him are starvation wages. He simply goes to sleep and spends all the winter months dreaming idly of the pleasures of summer. Then when spring comes, he wakes, and finds his winter dreams true, new shoots of grain growing, and life ready to amuse and feed him. Don’t you wish we humans had thought of hibernation about two hundred million years ago?”
“It would have been an idea,” agreed Jim. “No doubt Nature missed several good bets in connection with men, and hibernating was one of them. And wings was another. And a sting was another. I often wish I had a great big sting like a bee’s. But all the same, you haven’t mentioned any good reason for groundhogs. I don’t see why we shouldn’t consider them as just something to shoot at.”
“No doubt, you’re quite right,” I confessed. “Judged by the same standards, a great many human beings cut no more figure in this life than so many groundhogs. They might be regarded as something to shoot at.”
“The only difference is that the groundhogs can’t complain to the authorities. They can’t get even.” said Jim.
So when Wednesday, Jim’s half day off, came along and he signalled me to follow him from the office, I did so, and we walked down to the parking lot, and in Jim’s car was his rifle and several boxes of shells. And it being a lovely day and the birds likely to be mad with love and song. I went along, mostly to see the birds. Jim said that south of Georgetown were some wonderful sandy and gravel hills just lousy with groundhogs, and that way we went. And long before we spotted the first groundhog I was well paid by a no less beautiful sight than two cuckoos flying with their curious snakelike motion, and a Blackburnian warbler and no end of commoner birds which are to me like people I know as I pass along, and so life is less lonely.
Up a hill waving with green clover, and against a beautiful old boulder fence, we spied our first groundhog. He was all unaware, busily feeding, and not until we were within about forty yards of him did he suddenly sit up, the picture of indignation, his dark brow’s making him look very like an indignant fat man disturbed in his rightful business.
We lay down. Jim put the rifle to his shoulder and drew a careful bead. He drew and drew, breathing heavily and then holding his breath, and finally he touched off the trigger.
There was a loud plunk.
“Got him,” cried Jim, leaping up and racing towards the fence. But I saw the little brown beast scamper furiously and vanish into his hole in a sandy knoll of his own building.
“You only winged him,” I accused, as I ran alongside. “He got down his hole.”
“We’ll find him lying dead just inside the entrance,” said Jim.
But when we got to the little mound, and found the dark and secret entrance to the cave, there was no groundhog sprawled at the gate, nor was there any sign of blood.
“I heard it go plunk,” said Jim.
“Listen,” I commanded.
And from out the hole in the ground came, as from a distance of several feet, a faint squealing sound. It was a sound like newborn puppies make, and it was interspersed with a snapping or chopping sound which groundhogs make with their teeth as a warning.
“Jim,” I declared hotly, “there are babies in this den.”
“It’s the one I hit,” said Jim. “Squealing its last.”
“Pardon me,” I said, “but that is baby groundhogs making that squeaking sound.”
In the pleasant afternoon, soft with light and tenderness and joy and the love that broods in summer, we stood listening and then we knelt and finally we lay down with our ears at the hole.
“Suppose,” I accused, “that you have killed the mother of a brood of baby groundhogs?”
“Let’s go and find another,” said Jim, getting up.
“Jim. I’m going to dig these out,” I stated. “I’m going to go to that farm we passed back there and borrow a spade.”
“Listen,” said Jim, “why be a silly sentimentalist? Groundhogs are vermin. Why don’t you do something about all the beautiful baby sheep and baby pigs that are being slaughtered every day at the packing houses?”
“Wait till I come back with a shovel,” I commanded.
It was only a couple of fields back and the lady at the farmhouse gladly gave me a shovel.
“For groundhogs?” she said. “I hope you dig them all out.”
Jim was asleep on the mound when I got back. He said he would stand guard over the other exits of the groundhog burrow while I dug.
“It isn’t likely more than three or four feet down.” I assured him. And anyway. I want to show you what you have done.”
At first I intended to dig out the burrow the way drain menders dig out a sewer pipe, that is, by making a ditch that reaches down to it. But the entrance penetrated straight down for about five feet and then slowly sloped deeper still, and by the time I had burrowed six feet, I was under the stone fence and Jim was squatted at the entrance of the tunnel, watching me.
“Make it bigger,” he said, “so I can come down.”
“Go get a board off a fence,” I directed, “and come half way in and scoop the dirt back out as I dig.”
Ahead I could still hear the faint squealing of small animals, and this served to excite me on. Jim returned with a board and kneeling on knees and hands, he skited the earth I dug back between his hind legs like a terrier. We began to make progress.
The tunnel straightened out and ran like a gallery ahead. All I had to do was cut the earth around the hole already made by the groundhog and pass it back.
“Look,” I cried, “here’s a branch tunnel leading off. Isn’t this smart? Just like a German dugout in France.”
Something stabbed me on the knee.
“Jim,” I cautioned, “be careful with that plank.”
“It isn’t near you,” said Jim, skiting sand.
“Ouch,” I said, “what the dickens are you doing?”
Something whistled sharply, and a heavy furry object like a bag of something soft, such as flour, struck me violently in the pinnie.
“Back, Jim,” I shouted loudly. “Back.”
“What is it?” asked Jim, not backing, but leaning forward as if to see in the dark over my shoulder.
By now, there was a scuffling and a scurrying a whistling and a chunnying, a teeth-grating and a scratching; with a dexterous movement, I let Jim follow his curiosity while I heaved past him, and left him in rear. In the darkness, there was a sense of danger and of menace.
“Look out,” cried Jim in his turn, pushing at me to make way. “They’re attacking us.”
And with Jim assisting me, I made good time up the tunnel and we burst into the blessed wide open spaces with sand in our hair and grit in our teeth. We backed a respectable twelve feet from the hole we had made and stared down.
“For heaven’s sake,” said Jim, “the little brutes actually attacked us.”
From the shadows far at the bottom of our excavation there rose a chorus of menacing sounds, curious hoarse whistles and grindings, chucky grunts and snappings. Like a jack in the box, a brindled fat figure popped out a foot and then instantly back. It repeated this bold maneouvre three or four times while Jim and I stared ready for instant flight.
“I’ll be jiggered,” I said. “The little savages.”
So I stooped and grasped a boley, which is a pebble egg-sized or up.
“Easy,” cautioned Jim. “Don’t irritate them. We’ve only got a little twenty-two.”
He picked his rifle up gingerly, and held it behind him.
“In the case of bears,” I suggested in an undertone, “they say the best thing to do is walk quietly away. Don’t run.”
“Come on, then,” agreed Jim anxiously, for the sounds in the cavern were increasing, as if ground hogs were gathering from all the subterranean passages for miles around to man this pass of Thermopylae.
We backed slowly. We did not remove our eyes from the excavation. No fierce sabre-toothed groundhog head showed. We turned. We walked smartly. We ran. We got into the car and slammed the doors and rolled up the windows. Jim held the twenty-two on his knees.
“Ah,” we said.
“That’s gratitude for you,” I said. “Me trying to do a noble and humane deed, and they attack us.”
“You can carry humanitarianism too far,” said Jim. “Sometimes, humanitarianism is against the laws of life.”
“The ungrateful little brutes,” said I, bitterly.
“To tell you the truth,” said Jim. “I was afraid they might have rabies. That’s why I didn’t want to let them near me.”
“It was the shock that made me hurry,” I explained. “Shock and rage at their ingratitude. The vermin.”
Jim rolled down one of the car windows and stuck the twenty-two out. No fanged heads showed above the sandpile high up against the stone fence.
“Just fire one,” I said, “to show our contempt.”
So Jim fired one, and the little spurt of sand showed he had hit the fortifications.
“Yah,” I yelled. “Take that.”
So we drove back around through Georgetown and all the pretty little towns and scorned groundhogs from then on.
Editor’s Notes: Jim shows his farm-boy roots in this article, with his contempt for groundhogs, and his feeling they serve no purpose.
This story appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing, 1980.