Lawns. I am not a big fan of them. I love meadows, or even lightly tended fields.
I prefer to have a yard rather than a lawn, that flat expanse of close trimmed grass we call a lawn has never been all that appealing to me. A “yard” does not carry the implication of maintenance that a “lawn” implies. Lawns are an integral part of American life though, and are found even in places completely unsuited to their presence. In some areas neighborhood associations mandate how your lawn must look, what you can and can’t have on it, and, in extreme cases, what shade of green it must be and how many inches tall it must be.
There are many theories behind why lawns exist, some people claim that it is a relict of animal husbandry, particularly sheep and how a grazed landscape looks. Others claim that it taps into some deep species memory of living on a savanna, that the flat, open land is visually soothing and provides a sense of safety and removal from danger and the unknown. Some claim that lawns are a symbol of our control over nature, our own private, manufactured landscapes.
The most interesting idea I’ve heard for the prevalence of lawns in the US is in Charles C. Mann’s excellent book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. He suggests that wide, expansive lawns may have been an anti-malaria survival strategy. A house on a rise on the landscape with cleared land around it would catch the breeze and prevent malaria carrying mosquitoes from getting into the house. Lawns became embedded in the social consciousness of the emerging United States and spread with the population, as symbolic as the flag or fireworks, though more subtle and having greater practical value. It is an interesting idea and makes as much, or more, sense as any other idea concerning lawns that I have read.
What bothers me about lawns is that they tend to be uniform monocrops with little three-dimensional texture. This lack of diversity limits what wildlife visits a lawn, and I, as an ecologist and someone who is always investigating things, love diversity. My yard here in Vermont is diverse, but my landlord likes a short lawn and cuts it down to an inch or two in height. Every time he does so all the insects, birds, and mammals flee, taking weeks to return. I like all those mobile visitors.
One of the visitors to my lawn is a plump woodchuck (Marmota monax). It only crosses the road to my lawn when the vegetation reaches 6-8 inches, then it visits nearly every evening and some mornings a well. This rotund fellow is wary and alert, standing up and peering about at the slightest out of place sound.
The name Woodchuck is actually a derivative of a Native American name wuchak, and has nothing to do with either wood or chucking, despite generations of woodchuck chucking wood tongue-twisters.
Woodchucks, also known as Groundhogs, Land-Beavers, and, my favorite, Whistle-Pigs are marmots, large rodents related to ground squirrels. Most of the marmot family are alpine dwellers, commonly found in high grassy places from Europe to Asia and through North America, but the woodchuck is a lowland species wide-spread in the northeastern and central United States, and through Canada up to Alaska. Like other marmots woodchucks have a piercing alarm call, a sharp whistle that carries far, sometimes with a bit of a burbling quality to it.
Most often a woodchuck will appear as a furry lump on the grass, something like a cross of a loaf of bread, a caterpillar, and a fat otter pretending to be a cat. Many people have a particular dislike for woodchucks because they eat garden vegetables and ornamental plants. A good friend of mine has been driven to distraction by one that is eating her hydrangeas. The one that visits my lawn (but only when it has not been cut for a while) eats the dandelions and fleabane, basically weeding the yard for me.
During the spring, summer, and fall woodchucks pile on as much fat as they can, much like small bears. Come winter they retreat to a specially dug winter burrow to hibernate. Marmots are some of the few animals that enter true hibernation. They radically slow all their metabolic processes and remain oblivious to the world until mating time, often beginning in February or March, possibly later the further north they live.
Woodchucks have marvelously thick and soft fur, as do other marmots. I have a hat I bought in western China with a marmot fur ruff that is too warm for me to wear in nearly any weather. Despite putting on a tremendous amount of fat their flesh is lean, most of the fat is in a subcutaneous layer, just beneath the skin, with the rest stored in the body cavity between the internal organs.
Woodchucks are the most solitary of marmots and are said to be aggressive. They can be hand raised to be cuddly, but it takes a great deal of effort to overcome their feisty nature.
Surprisingly, woodchucks are reputed to be agile climbers in an emergency, though I have yet to see one scale a tree. Most often what I see is one popping up to look about:
Followed by a rapid retreat if I am not careful, quiet, and slow moving:
I like this occasional visitor to my yard, and, given the option, do not mow my lawn as if I do it will not come by to visit.
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A note: my posts may become a bit erratic for a few months, I am in the midst of finishing one job, moving (maybe twice), and will hopefully be beginning a new job in a different country. Eventually this will provide great material for the ongoing exploration of nature, but the route there may be a little irregular and unpredictable. Bear with it, I will not abandon my writing and photography.