The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.8Hal Borland
I went downstairs, took the .22 rifle, and hurried outside. Pat heard me coming and barked even more excitedly. Before I reached him he made a rush and I saw that he was trying to overturn a big woodchuck that was crouched in the grass. Pat caught a fold of its loose skin over the shoulders and jerked it off its feet, but before he could get another hold it was on its feet again and snapping at him with long, sharp incisors.
The action was too fast for me to risk a shot. I didn’t want to shoot Pat, and he obviously wasn’t asking my help. I don’t know how he surprised the chuck so far away from a hole, but he did, somehow, and he had it so completely on the defensive that it didn’t dare to turn and run for it. So it was fighting somewhat as I have seen a badger fight, though with lesser weapons. The woodchuck’s claws and teeth are shorter and less sharp than those of a badger, and the woodchuck is less muscular than the badger of the West. This chuck had found a small hollow in the pasture grass and was hunkered into it, much as a badger hunches into a shallow hole it scratches out with its hind feet in an emergency. There it crouched, turning to face the dog as he shifted his attack from one side to another, meeting every rush with teeth and claws. Though the woodchuck is a vegetarian and in no sense a predator, it can be a vicious fighter. In mating season, in early spring, the male chucks rip and tear each other and sometimes maim or kill a rival for a mate.
Pat feinted from one side, then another, dancing about, rushing in, barking to distract the chuck, trying to find an opening. Twice he closed in and caught the chuck by the skin over the tawny shoulders, and each time the loose skin rolled and Pat succeeded only in tumbling the chuck out of its protective hollow. And before he could follow up, the chuck was hunkered in again and facing him with those desperate claws and teeth.
Feint and back, and feint again. Close and snap, and scramble. Despite the infighting, Pat somehow had escaped both the snapping teeth and the raking claws. But the woodchuck was getting tired.
Then Pat closed again, and that time he got what he wanted, a firm hold on the woodchuck’s neck. He shook it, as a terrier shakes a rat, and he set his teeth, reached the fatal spot.
The fight was over.
Pat wallowed the dead chuck a little longer, then let it lie and looked at me. He was tired, panting heavily, but he was unmarked. He wagged his tail, and he nosed the dead chuck again, watching for any sign of life.
I gave him proper praise, and I reached down to pick up the chuck and take it to the burying ground. Pat grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and dragged it to one side. It was his woodchuck, not mine.
I walked away to see what he was going to do with it. He picked it up and carried it toward the side lawn. It was a big chuck, quite a load for Pat, who stands only nineteen inches high at the shoulders, and he had to drag it part of the way. But he took it onto the side lawn, over by the cabbage-rose tangle. He left it there and he went on around the house and lay down in the sun. He didn’t even get up when I had put the unused rifle in the house and got the spade and took the woodchuck and buried it. When Pat killed a woodchuck he was going to bring it home and put it where his dead woodchucks belonged. After that I could take over, but not until then.
I have no feud with woodchucks as long as they leave the garden alone. If they could resist the temptation of a vegetable garden I would welcome them as next-door neighbors, for they are quiet, cleanly animals of generally exemplary habits. I have heard, and I believe it, that a woodchuck caught young can be tamed into a companionable and affectionate pet.
But a woodchuck is a glutton, and that makes all the trouble. A moderately hungry chuck will eat a pound and a half of green stuff at a meal, and he wants two or three meals a day. That’s quite a food budget for an animal which, full grown, seldom weighs more than ten or twelve pounds. And no matter how lush the clover in the pasture, every woodchuck I have ever known prefers to forage in a garden. It takes a lot of young lettuce—or pea vines, or green beans, or beet tops, or cucumber or squash vines—to make up that pound-and-a-half meal. A couple of normally hungry woodchucks can denude even our rather large vegetable garden in a day.
And, since I am drawing up an indictment, I may as well state the whole of my charge. Besides eating as much as half a dozen rabbits do, the woodchuck seems to take special delight in wallowing through or nipping off three times as much provender as he eats. Maybe his other common name, groundhog, comes in part from his swinish habit of spoiling even more than he eats. I’ve known a woodchuck to cut down a whole hill of squash or cucumbers, then eat only a handful of the succulent tips. And if he finds access to a sweet-corn patch he will pull down a whole row of stalks to get perhaps half a dozen prime ears.
So the “No Welcome” sign is up around here for woodchucks. And, from that very first summer, Pat has helped enforce it. No, I must amend that. Pat has enforced it, and I have helped from time to time. Actually, I haven’t killed more than two woodchucks a year, and Pat has averaged at least a dozen. One year he killed nineteen that I accounted for, and probably several more. That was the year Pat decided to be provident.
I don’t know why he expected hard times that summer. Maybe he heard me talking about inflation and high prices. Anyway, one morning I heard him making his familiar woodchuck-at-bay noises at the lower end of the pasture. A little later I saw him skirting the brush, coming toward home at the far edge of the pasture with something the color of a woodchuck in his mouth. He was furtive, but I paid no special attention, thinking he had made his kill and was bringing it home, as usual, to leave on the lawn for me to find. But when I went down for lunch and looked in all the likely spots, I found no woodchuck.
Pat, lying on the front steps, pretended sleep but kept watching me with one eye. Finally I gave up and asked, “All right, where did you hide it?” He lifted his head, yawned, gave me a “Who, me?” look, then turned away. His nose, I noticed then, was still smudged with dirt almost up to his eyes. He had buried his woodchuck.
The next day he brought a woodchuck in and left it, as usual, beside the driveway. Then he buried another one. And that continued for a week. He brought in three woodchucks, and by all the evidence I could see he buried three.
I had no objection to that. My own burying ground was getting rather crowded. But one evening he didn’t eat his supper. He had no appetite. A little later we were sitting on the front porch, watching the barn swallows put on their aerial circus in the slow dusk, when Pat came and joined us. Barbara sniffed, and I sniffed. Pat was surrounded by quite an aura, and it wasn’t the kind of aura he would get by lying in the mint bed. I got up and went closer to him, and chased him off the porch. Then I began searching for the carcass. I found it behind the garage.
Pat had brought one of his private stock of woodchucks out of storage, and it was well aged. He had not only eaten his fill. He had rolled on it. Pat, for all his virtues, has the idea that well-aged woodchuck not only tastes good but smells wonderful. He enjoys that odor on his own hair and hide. We don’t.
I buried the degenerated woodchuck, what was left of it, and I got a pail of warm water well fortified with a strong detergent. I gave Pat the bath of his life.
Pat doesn’t like to get a bath, but he submits. He submits grudgingly, grumbling all the while and giving me looks that would blister paint. But now and then there is no other way out. That was one of those times. I scrubbed him from black nose-tip to white tail-tip, sparing only his eyes. Then I rinsed him with three pailfuls of spring-cold water. Finally I let him go. And I made the mistake of standing and watching him.
He stood there, water streaming from him, eyes fairly spitting fire at me. Then he edged even closer to me and shook himself. He shook with every muscle in his body, and I got almost as thorough a dousing as he had had. Then, having his revenge, he rolled in the grass, got up, shook himself again, and rolled again and again. And finally he sprang to his feet, a clean dog, the black in his coat as black as midnight, the white as white as moonlight. He was socially acceptable once more.
It was a week before he dug up another woodchuck. I caught him that time before he had fouled himself as completely as he did the first time, but he got another bath, just the same. And he resented it just as deeply as before.
To this day, Pat can’t understand why we fail to share his ecstasy over the smell of ripe woodchuck. He seems to agree that the smell of skunk is objectionable, and when he occasionally has an unhappy encounter with a skunk he submits with good grace to the consequent bath, not even resenting the tomato-juice shampoo that I have found most effective in neutralizing the odor of skunk. But our finicky attitude about the odor of carrion still baffles him. And a bath is an ordeal.
How and where Pat achieved his skill in hunting woodchucks is a mystery to me. I am sure he didn’t develop it overnight when he found that we didn’t want them raiding the garden. His war with the woodchucks must lie deeper than that, and further back. Perhaps before he came to us he lived on woodchucks—I have never seen him catch or kill a rabbit; but if that were true, he had meager fare after the woodchucks hibernated.
If I were breeding a special woodchuck dog I should choose such stock as must be Pat’s, a combination of foxhound and beagle. He has the beagle’s excellent nose and stout frame. His legs are sturdy beagle legs but have more length. He has the big, strong feet of a beagle. He has strong jaws and good teeth, and his neck is thick and muscular. His shoulders are heavy, but he has the big-lunged chest of a good hound, which gives him both a strong voice and endurance for the chase. His smoothhaired coat is deceptively heavy, with a thick, fine undercoat that protects him not only from rough winter weather but also from all but the sharpest of raking claws. For such a compact dog, he is remarkably quick on his feet. And he has the courage and persistence of a hound.
Every spring he explores the pastures and nearby brush patches, apparently mapping in his memory every woodchuck hole on the place. When he goes out, even with me, he seems to have a tactical diagram that he follows, skirting the pasture edges, going from one possible woodchuck haven to another, watching always for a chuck that has ventured too far from a hole. He walks with the silent caution of a fox, watching, listening, now and then nosing the air. I have kicked a cottontail out of the grass within twenty feet of him and he hasn’t even seen it. He trails rabbits only by scent, never by sight. But with woodchucks he uses every sense.
One afternoon I was walking down the road and Pat was ranging the pasture nearby. I came to a place where a culvert, or sluice as it is locally called, goes under the road to carry the runoff from a shallow gully down to the river. The gully is no more than an open swale where the grass and clover grow lush. Pat came to the upper end of the gully and stopped, alert. He nosed the air, moved a little way, sniffed the grass, looked around. He came toward the road, almost catlike in his caution. He looked again, then he yelped. It was the woodchuck signal. He yelped again and dashed toward the culvert.
There was a scurry and a rush, and a woodchuck raced through the tall grass, also toward the culvert. Pat didn’t dash at the woodchuck. He tried to cut him off. But the woodchuck had just enough headstart to beat Pat to the pasture end of the culvert by three feet. The woodchuck dived in, and Pat dived in right behind.
I ran across the road just in time to see the woodchuck streak out of the culvert and plunge headlong into a hole five feet away. Pat was so close behind that he almost plunged into the hole himself. He checked himself, scrambled on down the riverbank almost to the water, then came back and nosed into the hole once and barked a few threats. Then he came back to me, wagged his tail in apology, and returned to the swale in the pasture. There he nosed the ground and seemed to be making mental notes of just where the woodchuck had been, where he had been feeding and which escape route he had taken. I could imagine him planning how to do it differently the next time, how to manage that slight advantage which would beat that particular woodchuck to the culvert.
Whether that is the way Pat’s mind worked or not, I have no way of knowing. All I know is what happened two days later.
It was late afternoon, when woodchucks would be out gathering their evening meal. Pat, who had napped in the side yard most of the afternoon, got up, stretched, looked down the valley. He seemed to deliberate for a few minutes, then trotted down the road. I watched, and when I saw that he was heading toward the swale just above the culvert I came in and got the field glasses.
He took his time, but as he approached the swale he became more and more cautious. He slipped through the pasture fence and worked his way into the edge of the swale, head high, tensely alert. He nosed the air, moved a few steps, then yelped. He moved again, yelped again, then dashed for the culvert. I couldn’t see the woodchuck in the high grass, and Pat vanished in the hollow at the mouth of the culvert. A few minutes later he came out of the hollow and headed for home, a woodchuck in his mouth.
As far as I could see, at a distance, his tactics weren’t much different from those he used when I was there. But somehow he had managed that slight edge, that one leap of advantage that meant victory. Perhaps it was nothing but luck. But he had remembered that particular woodchuck, he knew the time of day when it probably would be feeding, and he made a successful approach. I am inclined to say that he knew what he was doing and that he had planned it. He had learned from experience and he had altered his tactics just enough to do what he failed to do the first time.
Woodchucks also must learn from experience, but they haven’t the intelligence of a wise dog. They have keen eyesight and acute hearing, and they are surprisingly fast on their feet. But if they learn from experience they have to learn fast, for only the lucky woodchucks live to be five years old.
Some woodchucks do show surprising ingenuity. Some years ago I knew a woodchuck that learned to climb over a five-foot woven-wire fence. He could have burrowed under the fence if he had chosen—several of his brothers and cousins did. But this particular fellow learned to climb over, and he did it with a flourish, hand-over-hand, monkey-fashion. Despite everything I did, he lived on our garden for three years. He even seemed to know when I had a gun, for if I was empty-handed he would let me approach within twenty yards before he left off his gluttony and ambled to the fence and up and over. With a gun, I never did get within range of him.
But that was before we came here to live, before Pat came along to make life precarious for all woodchucks. If Pat had been there, he would have found some solution. I don’t know what he would have done, but he would have put an end to that fenceclimber’s insolence, one way or another. Pat knows more about woodchucks than woodchucks know about themselves.
PAT IS SO MUCH A dog of the woods and fields that it never occurred to me that he might want to share the river with us. If he had been a spaniel or any other kind of water-loving dog I might have expected it. But not Pat, not a keen-nosed beagle-foxhound sort of dog that would rather run rabbits than eat.
So when I put the boat in the water that spring I didn’t even watch Pat’s reaction. All I noticed was that he seemed to have no interest in boats. And when we prepared for the first trip upstream to catch a mess of fish he seemed to be bored by what was going on. He sat on the bank beside the dock while we stowed our gear and he had settled down for a nap in the sun even before I cast off.
He was still there when we came back two hours later. He got up, yawned and stretched. He stood and watched while I started to clean the fish, then walked away, totally uninterested.
That evening Barbara said to him, “Pat, you’re going to catch up on your sleep this summer.” Then she asked me, “Do you suppose he’s afraid of the water?” I said I didn’t think so, but that he certainly was a dry-land dog. And we began to plan the time we would have on the river.
The Housatonic where we know it best is a broad, placid river close to a hundred yards wide. Its course here, and for several miles upstream, was shaped by a lowpower dam half a mile downstream, where there used to be an electric power plant. Both ends of
It is a friendly river which shows its temper only often enough to make us respect its power. And it is a special world for us, as special in its own way as the mountainside. Ours is the only house in miles that stands close beside it, so we can go far upstream and have the sense of knowing a river in a natural world. The few fields and meadows that come down to the river are hidden by the thick growth of trees along its banks. Herons nest beside the river, and black ducks and mallards raise their broods there. Kingfishers rattle and dive and feed on its fish. Turtles sun themselves on its snags. Wild forget-me-nots twinkle in the riverside grass, and wild phlox grows there, and purple vervain and asters and goldenrod.
In the spring we tie up the boat at the foot of a certain meadow and gather very young milkweed for cooked greens. Now and then we go out in the gauzy mists of early dawn to watch the sunrise and eat our breakfast in the boat while we fish for black bass and yellow perch. We go out at dusk to watch the swallows play their games in the sunset sky and know the wonder of the full moon rising over the water. And when fall comes, with first frost, we take pails and nose the boat along the banks where wild grape vines festoon the overhanging alders and basswood trees. We pick tiny river grapes and make jelly that brings all the tang and taste of summer to the winter dinner table.
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