Of Woodchucks (and Lawns)

Lawns.  I am not a big fan of them.  I love meadows, or even lightly tended fields.

Summer rain over a Vermont field full of buttercups (Ranunculus spp.)

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.

Dew covered Funnel-Web or Grass Spider webs (Agelenopsis spp.)

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.

Woodchuck (Marmota monax) alert for danger

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.

Woodchuck from the rear

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.

Woodchuck eating weeds from my yard

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:

Wary woodchuck watches for danger

Followed by a rapid retreat if I am not careful, quiet, and slow moving:

Just too dangerous around here…

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.

Mainly because it is silly – if the animation is not working, click the image

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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.

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8 comments on “Of Woodchucks (and Lawns)

  1. So how do they check the weather forecasts up in Vermont ? Woodchucks ? –> Kidding

    I love pics of isolated Thunderstorms. It’s those storms that intrigue me the most over frontal assault types

    When i was head landscaper in San Diego with a property management company, I continually tried to get the company to replace the lawns with Native plant themes. But it’s an ideology and cultural problem. A lot of manpower and resources go into maintenance with lawns. Plus they require more chemicals in the west than in the east or north where clippings are left and constant supply of moisture quickly breakdown these clippings back into the lawn. No such luck in the west where clippings dry out and look like a mess on the lawns. They have to be taken away to keep that lovely manicured look and nutrients replaced on a regular basis with the usual chemicals.

    I would imagine that like Sweden, your areas require a different maintenance as in constant thinning and weeding. Gardens here can quickly become overgrown. I miss a neat manicured low maintenance Mediterranean look.

    I like the woodchuck/Marmot stories. What I find grossly missing in nature and grassland and prairie maintenance are lack of wild animals. I’m absolutely amazed at the deterioration of all animal numbers. Animals are the perfect shapers , scuplters and formers of vegetated Habitat restoration and progression. To bad that often times these factors are never considered in habitat restorations. some are, but many not. The focus is always on the plants. But plants need the animals as the animals need the plants.

    Thanks for the read

    • EarthKnight says:

      I fully agree, both on the need for animals as an integral part of our landscapes and that we expend far too many resources maintaining flat expanses of grass.

      I’m from California originally, and i well know the enormous waste that lawns are in that state. Here in Vermont there is enough water that if you clear land and mow it it will become a lawn on its own with no need for watering. As a result many people have golf course sized lawns that are nosily mowed every Sunday.

      Thunderstorms are great! Isolated or widespread, I like them both.

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Thinking about your post…I tend to believe that our issues with “control” are more at the heart of maintaining these monocultures and that their appearance in the landscape is a fairly new and manufactured obsession…thanks Scott’s Turf Builder! Looking at antique American photographs maintaining a lawn was far from most people’s minds. Love the whistle-pig images!

  3. Nice post—interesting theories on the origins of lawns. Your woodchuck photos are great, and I enjoyed learning more about them. They seem almost cute and likeable until, like your friend with the hydrangeas, I recall the damage they’ve done to my garden.

    Best of luck with your move and job. I look forward to your future posts.

    • EarthKnight says:

      It’s always a challenge to reconcile our use of the land with that of other species. Especially when we find ourselves in competition with those species. A good friend of mine had an ongoing fight with hungry cedar trees on his property that would send roots dozens of feet across the ground in search of the rich soils of his garden. He eventually had to dig a trench all around the garden to protect it from the hungry trees.

      Woodchucks, being a bit more mobile, can be even more of a nuisance. They are far more tasty than cedar trees though :)

  4. Teage says:

    Michael Pollan’s Second Nature gives a pretty great history of why we have lawns. If you were living in feudal England you couldn’t spare space in your land (or time in your day) to tend to something that wouldn’t provide you food (or allow you to pay tithing to nobility). Having a lawn showed that you were a fat cat, that toiling with the land was beneath you, much like a thick coating of fat showed that you and your kin had enough not just to survive but to thrive and maintain a nice padded bottom. I don’t know that I buy the malaria argument – lawns are far older (middle ages) than European conquest of America. And lawns, or the concept of maintaining a lawn, were exported from northern Europe, not central/southern Africa.

    • EarthKnight says:

      That’s all true, indeed lawns in Europe predate that “fat cat” period by a decent period of time, one of their early origins there being in monasteries where monks would use boiling water and vinegar to kill unwanted plants the the lawns.

      In the US lawns were (and are) most definitely a status symbol, though ride-on mowers and such makes the symbology much less than it used to be.

      Charles C Mann’s malaria argument is not in any way meant to suggest that lawns were imported from Africa, nor that the status symbol aspect is not important either. Most people don’t realize how much of an impact malaria, yellow fever, and other mosquito born illnesses had in colonial America. We have eradicated these diseases so successfully that the majority of the population doesn’t even realize that we had them in the US. The argument Charles makes is that the imported status symbol lawns took on a new and different purpose here in the US, one that affected how and why they spread on this continent.

      As in most things, I suspect that the truth is somewhere between everyone’s suggestions and hypotheses.

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