One day last week, we saw a woodchuck on the side of Bellah Mine Road nonchalantly nibbling a nettle. At first we thought we were seeing a groundhog, but then noticed the furry tail. Those groundhogs we used to see in Ohio had only little nubs for tails, like rabbits. I rolled down the window and yelled, “Hey, you woodchuck, quit chunking my wood.” At that, he stood up on his hind legs and grinned at me, making some kind of strange rodent salute with his right front paw before he eased off down to the shade where the creek used to be before the drought.
I googled images for muskrat but he was no muskrat. I googled groundhog, even though I was familiar with these creatures, but he was definitely no groundhog. I googled woodchuck and there he was, as if someone had photographed the very Bellah Mine resident we witnessed. He was a handsome fellow, just like the one in the picture, with the most relaxed demeanor I’ve ever seen in a rodent.
The groundhogs in Ohio were not nearly that relaxed. They were downright fidgety, as if some human was going to make groundhog stew out of them. Several nice plump ones lived in the cemetery I used to cross to get to the bicycle trail and when they saw me coming they always dove for cover. Some lived in drainage ports, some in holes beside gravestones and some under piles of discarded artificial flowers. They seemed legless as they glided along across the well-manicured Good Shepherd Gardens.
One day I got a close look at one of the larger ones as I approached on my silent bicycle. The creature munched on something at the edge of the woods. He didn’t hear me coming and I got really close before he floated fatly into the forest in a rat-like panic. What I observed in my close encounter of the groundhog kind was that he looked terribly sad, as if living there in the cemetery had left its mark on his psyche. In my mind’s eye I seem to remember dark tear stains streaming down his facial fur, though that impression may have been false in the dismal shadows of the graveyard. Surely groundhogs don’t cry.
If I were a groundhog, or a woodchuck for that matter, I’d make my home far away from human habitation. In a big city such as Columbus, I suppose a cemetery seems to be a vast expanse of open space, inviting to wild animals that wish to avoid human contact. In fact, two or three late evenings as I sailed wearily through the cemetery on the way home from a bicycle ride, I saw not only the plump, morose groundhogs scurrying around, but a downcast rabbit or two and some depressed deer. The only humans besides me in the place were down in the ground, mere earthen and anticipatory vessels of their fled spirits.
On resurrection morning, the groundhogs and their animal companions at Good Shepherd will have reason to be startled. But not sad.