Lum: Wood-chucking whistle pigs
If you look up “groundhog,” you will be referred to woodchucks, but when you go there, you will not be told whether they chuck wood or what, exactly, chucking wood means. You will be further referred to whistle pigs and marmots, and you’ll get the idea that all of these animals are closely related if not one and the same.
The rodent that I grew up with back east was the woodchuck, the only wild beast that could set my mother into an uncharacteristic screaming rage.
“They ate the peas, and now they’re after the green beans,” she yelled while whack, whack, whacking more fence posts into the tenderly hand-fed soil.
She never brought in traps lest my little brother or one of our two dachshunds get snapped by them. Her weapons were the rake and her voice.
“You get the hell out of here,” she’d bellow — as if the toothy creatures had any understanding of local land laws — and the whistle pigs, which were never heard to whistle, would feel the wind of the rake on their nethers but never the bite of a blade as they slithered their plump selves under the chicken wire and made a dash for their home tunnels in the nearby hills.
The garden had long been retired when my kids and I visited my mother, then in her late 90s.
“There’s a dead woodchuck in the road,” Skye told her. Although the fallen woodchuck was many, many generations removed from its forebears that had raided the garden long ago, my mother did not easily let go of a grudge.
“Good!” was her emphatic reply.
Out west, everybody calls them marmots. You can often see them when you’re driving over the pass or when taking the bus to visit the Maroon Bells, where they are posed along the road as if positioned by central casting.
A few days ago, my daughter Hillery and her husband, Bruce, set out on separate errands in separate vehicles from their place in Leadville, Hillery taking the “good” vehicle and Bruce the “bad” one.
Bruce said he had traveled about 60 miles and had made a couple of stops and that traffic then came to a standstill. You know the situation — nobody has a clue what’s going on or how long it will last, and everybody keeps barely perceptibly inching forward — grind, grind, grind.
But for Bruce, the inching-forward part stopped as his car stopped dead in the highway.
Luckily he was in the right-hand lane, the one by the woods, and even more luckily he was on a slight downward slope, so he was able to maneuver his car out of the traffic.
This is where you need to pay close attention because — despite hints along the way — you were probably not expecting that when Bruce lifted the hood of his car a marmot (or groundhog or whistle pig or woodchuck) flew out from under the hood, leapt off the car and disappeared into the woods on the side of the road.
How could you possibly have guessed that, because a rodent of that size could never have survived the 60-mile journey much less the heat generated by the inching traffic due to the traffic jam?
And that whistle pig was not about to hang around to give testimony.
During the rehash in the aftermath, Hillery proposed the theory that the groundhog had decided that either he had to stop the vehicle or he was going to die trying. This would explain all the wires that had been stripped by his sharp and prominent teeth.
Bruce, who is normally fully equipped with a full complement of tools for any emergency, didn’t have so much as a toothpick in the “bad” car and hence was faced with the reality that if he were outwitted by a marmot, he would have to think like a marmot to even the score.
Using his teeth, Bruce finished the wire-biting that the woodchuck had begun, stripping the different-colored wrappings while taking care not to electrocute himself. He then rewrapped the wrappings — don’t ask me how; I know zip about electricity — and the car started back up.
Bruce said that while he was making his groundhog repairs, about 200 cars inched past him in the traffic jam, but not one driver asked him if he needed help.
Su Lum is a longtime local who was not fond of Hillery’s childhood screaming guinea pigs. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at email@example.com.
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