Sunday, June 11, 2006

A beast of improbable lineage

There was something out there, something big, near where the field slopes down from the higher ground to drain through a half-crushed pipe beneath the bend in the road. Something where nothing had ever been. I was already reaching for the rifle when I realized what I was seeing was not what I thought it was.

Not the cat that had been prowling the yard, a feline whose fabled nine lives were set to expire with the first clear shot, but larger. Stockier. Taller. I picked up the binoculars and spun the focus ring until the creature swam from the fog of color to crystallize into a beast standing on its haunches, its dense fur pale and grizzled across its back, washed with cinnamon on its belly and legs. Small blackbutton eyes glinting in the sun, seeming to bore into mine.

I said its name then, whether aloud or silent I could not tell, and the name I spoke or did not speak was of a different mammal, one far removed from this prairie place, and even as I realized my mistake and began to form a different arrangement of vowels and consonants the name swept over me and the walls shimmered and vanished and I stood on a lonely escarpment near the crook of another road. Before me the land fell away in a long green valley misty with a cold thin drizzle, and far below a serpentine creek shone silver in the halflight, a creek whose passage I would never follow and yet would forever drown in. And in that distant place of pitiless beauty and endless yearning a whistle pierced my reverie, and I glanced around to find several mammals watching me intently. And I thought theirs a world I could never inhabit but only briefly share, but in that sharing form a communion. For whenever, or wherever, we met, it would be their world, not mine. A world apart.

I sat down heavily in a chair and braced the binoculars with an elbow on the edge of the table. The creature dropped and began foraging, downing clumps of grass and flower heads and broadleaf weeds. It seemed to float, boneless, slinking through the field like a hoary shadow, occasionally standing upright to warily gaze about. As it approached I again said its name, aloud or silent it does not matter, and again the name was wrong.

Or not wrong, just—not right. I was actually closer to the truth the first time, though I did not know it.


There is a grave injustice here, and a mystery, and a tale to untangle. I fear I am not up to the task, time being an unrelenting foe and the threads of knowledge frayed and scattered across an uncharted universe of electronic bytes, some true, some false, some leading me down paths with no end, or resolution. And always, always, Wuchak stalks the edges.

Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning, or as close as we can get. And let’s be frank, even as Topsell was frank in his “History of the Four-footed Beasts,” an 1100-page bestiary published in 1607. “You must consider,” he disclaimed, “that since Adam went out of Paradise, there was never any that was able perfectly to describe the universal conditions of all sorts of beasts.” Or name them for that matter, though Linnaeus got us on the right track.

Not that Topsell ever made mention of a woodchuck—the second of my names for the beast in the field. But he did cite Julius Scaliger in his description for the alpine mouse, a “beast about the bigness of a badger.” To the French, a marmot.

The French word is problematic and impossible to trace, but its root lie in the terms “monkey” or “little child.” Which is another way of saying dead end.

“Woodchuck” dates to 1674, with its first description as a fur-bearing animal coming in 1778. The Oxford English Dictionary cites few references, leaving a blank spot on the map. But by 1797 the Encyclopedia Britannica listed the New World species using Linnaeus’s taxonomic order, and it is here that we get a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. For included was Arctomys monax, the American marmot.

There are five other species of marmots, including the yellow-bellied marmot of the lower Rockies and the hoary marmot of the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska. Only the woodchuck does not share a marmot name. In the vernacular it is a whistle pig, a monk, a woodshock. A not-marmot.

Monax means “digger.” The species excavates burrows in soft ground, usually concealed by shrubs or trees along the edges of open woods. Its favorite foods are leafy vegetation. But unlike its cousins, the woodchuck is a solitary animal, and can swim and climb trees. It ranges from the eastern United States, across Canada to eastern Alaska. It is not related to the beaver, nor does it chew or eat wood. So why do we call it a woodchuck?

According to several sources, the name resulted from a simple phonic simplification. Early settlers took the Cree Indian word, Wuchak, and morphed it by converting the first syllable to “wood” in an attempt to give meaning to an unfamiliar combination of sounds. The creature lived around woods, and also made a distinctive cluck or chuck, so the name fit.

And yet this beast rooting around in a prairie field took me to that other place, a place I called home though I could not stay, and as I studied it I realized that we were at last together in our own place, on our own home ground, and whatever traces of yearning I still harbored fell away in a hearty laugh. As the beast turned to watch me something inside gave way like the breaking of a dam, and I cried Wuchak! Wuchak! The American marmot!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We live southwest of Washington County--over in northern Ottawa County--around the town of Delphos. Today I saw an animal that might be a wood chuck or marmot. It looks VERY MUCH like the yellow bellied marmot of the Rockies, but doesn't have that light color. It is a charcoal color all over. The only problem is that I saw it as it scampered from our shed to the tall grass across the road. We have racoons, Bobcat, coyote, and fox, but this is not like any of those. Wondering if this might be a wood chuck although I know they are rare in eastern Kansas and to see one here in North central Kansas?? It is living around here because my two daughters have seen it two days in a row and chased it yesterday, but they didn't know what it was until I happened to mention marmot. It just didn't seem to have any of that yellowish tinge to it's neck and underside....right environment with a wooded ravine to the south and east of us and agriculture around, 4 miles from town...