GROUNDHOG STEW

stew

GROUNDHOG STEW

My father showed me how to catch, kill and clean fish, ducks and small mammals, and also how to prepare chowders and stews. To me it seemed a natural thing, and also special, for my father was a surgeon, and often had to rush off to save other lives, and didn’t always have time for mine. The times he busted free from the constraints of his profession, and shared his love of the sea and woods with me, are framed with gold in my memory, for he had a relationship with nature, life and Truth that surpassed anything intellectual.

He had a surgeon’s hands, smaller and more delicate than my meaty paws. When he cleaned a fish or gutted a woodchuck he cut precisely and carefully, and spoke with knowledge and awe of the various organs that were exposed. I learned far more about how our innards function when cleaning a fish than I ever did in school, and learned it at a much younger age. When a trained biology teacher finally got around to having us dissect frogs, my sophomore year in high school, his lesson had neither the knowledge nor awe of my father’s lessons, and he was in fact so tedious, and also painful to behold, that the only way to liven the class up was to do things with the frogs that got me sent to the principle’s office.

My father felt it was foolish to become upset about guts, and stated some operations, such as removing an appendix, were not much more difficult than stitching a button onto a shirt. He felt it was a shame that some people were so squeamish that they would rather let someone they loved die, than cut them open and take their appendix out. They’d let a wife die, rather than doing a cesarean.

However most people were squeamish, which was why my father was paid so much for a job he claimed wasn’t all that hard. However wealth exposed him to something he found far more upsetting than guts: People’s greed, and their willingness to lie and be corrupted, for mere money.

He lived through a sad downfall, for when he first operated people were far more likely to die and far less likely to sue, but then, after amazing advances in medicine he was partially responsible for, people became far more likely to live, and to sue your socks off.

Besides a stoic attitude towards guts, he wasn’t afraid of death. He often saw people who were in such misery death would be a great relief, whose chances of surviving an operation were quite low. Sometimes he had the joy of giving them freedom from their pain through a successful operation, but other times they died beneath his fingertips. Then he was upset, remembering their last, hoping looks at him, and their trust, however if he had succumbed to post-traumatic stress he would have become useless as a surgeon. He had to accept death, even as society as a whole became more and more unwilling to see the place death has in life.

His attitudes towards life and death extended beyond the hospital and into his relationship with nature. He was able to respect the life in animals, even as he hunted and fished. Society as a whole, however, became increasingly divorced from the fact their meat comes from life, just as their vegetables come from life.

One thing I wanted to do, when I opened our Childcare, was to expose modern children to such facts of life. It was amazing to me that modern kids were so removed from the farming life, which had been everyday to my grandparents. My grandparents grew up in the 1890’s, when half of all Americans were farmers, and horses were everyday transportation, because cars did not exist.

From the moment our Childcare opened I saw amusing examples of childish ignorance. Children would, (sometimes with wonder and sometimes while wrinkling their noses,) ask questions such as, “Why do you get carrots from the dirty dirt? Why don’t you get them from the supermarket?” When I explained that the supermarket also got carrots from the dirty dirt, you could see the light bulbs going off in their heads.

Parents approved of children learning where carrots come from, but when it came to the subject of where a chicken’s eggs came from, I could see a certain squeamishness starting to appear. The squeamishness became more than merely apparent, and got out of hand, when the children learned where woodchuck stew came from.

Woodchucks are vermin. It is hard for tree-huggers to comprehend what a nuisance they are, unless the tree-hugger has a farm or loves horses. Once a beautiful horse has to be put down, because it broke its leg in a woodchuck hole that appeared overnight in a pasture, the cute, furry creature looks less cuddly and much more demonic, even to a tree-hugger.

Their burrows have front doors and usually at least one back door. The front door turns a patch of lush green pasture to a dead area of subsoil, usually with a few large cobbles rolled out and away to ruin your mower blades, while the back door is often all but invisible.

You can’t really catch woodchucks in “have-a-heart” traps, and transfer them somewhere else, because you are transferring a problem to someone else’s land, and also a woodchuck without a hole is usually eaten by a fox or hawk before it can dig a new one, (so you are not really having a heart, are you now?)

However what can drive even a softhearted vegan into a foaming rage is what a woodchuck can do to a garden. Because they literally sleep from October until April, while they are awake they are amazing eating machines.

I’d put in several rows of broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower, when I first opened our childcare, because there is no comparison between homegrown and store-bought meals of such vegetables. The seedlings had been carefully grown in flats, and then transplanted out into the garden, with each plant’s roots tenderly placed in a nourishing mix of rotted manure and lime, with collars around the stems to protect each plant from cutworms and borers. It was a lot of work, especially as I had to keep the small children from stepping on my work. Then each plant had to be carefully watered, because we had a drought that spring. Then, overnight, each plant was eaten down to a nub of stem by a gluttonous woodchuck, despite the fact the pasture was lush and full of other plants. Then I had to watch my language, because there were children present, however “Goodness Gracious” simply doesn’t properly ventilate the spleen, in such situations.

Just about the only redeeming feature of a woodchuck is that they are tasty, (which is likely why they are also called, “groundhogs.”) In my opinion they taste better than the rabbit served at a French restaurant, primarily because rabbits have no fat and woodchucks do. (Those who are repelled by the idea of eating a rodent have never had a good squirrel pie.)

In any case, the little children heard the woodchuck was going to become lunch, and were interested. I planned to catch it in a have-a-heart, kill it out of sight, and perhaps clean it with a few of the older boys present, attempting to give them the feeling of wonder my father transferred to me, when he cleaned a woodchuck. However things didn’t happen as I planned.

It just so happened that we returned unexpectedly, from an unusual corner of the tree line, and caught the woodchuck out in the garden in broad daylight. The woodchuck had excavated an emergency hole right by the garden, for times it was caught away from its more expansive multi-entrance burrow by the woods, but I had blocked up that hole with a large stone that very morning, so when the woodchuck made a dash for that hole I ran towards it, likely saying something along the lines of, “I’ve got you now, you little sucker,” though hopefully in a very low voice the children couldn’t hear.

The children joined me as I ran, yelling shrill cries that surprised me, because they were so savage. It was a little like a scene from “Lord of the Flies.”

When the woodchuck found that his emergency hole was blocked he bolted into a thicket, and I looked around for a garden tool to pin it to earth it with. The mob of yelling boys stormed past and into the thicket ahead of me, and I shouted for them to back off, for a rodent’s chisel-teeth can inflict a painful bite if you aren’t careful. They completely ignored me. The largest boy, a moose of a lad around ten years old, reached the woodchuck ahead of me and dispatched it with a single stomp of his hiking boots. Then he lifted it up by its tail with an ear-to-ear grin, as the other children swarmed around him admiring his conquest. They were all flushed with the heat of the battle, and not a single one of them looked the slightest bit distressed or dismayed.

I then felt compelled to give them the lecture my father gave me about respecting life and never killing anything for the fun of it, using the same calm, level voice he had used. I imagine it is a very old Yankee lecture, and may even have Native American roots. It includes a line about never killing anything you don’t intend to eat, (though I don’t think that applies to mosquitoes.)

As I spoke I took out my jackknife and began to clean the woodchuck, and explained the various organs that were exposed, and what they did, in the way my father explained to me. A couple of the boys grew paler at that point, but most seemed very interested. Then we stretched the skin out on a plank, and put the meat in the refrigerator in a plastic bag, where it didn’t look all that different from joints of chicken. I told them we’d make a stew the following day, and headed off to mend a fence the goats had knocked down at the far end of the pasture, leaving the boys under the care of my Childcare staff.

Then the mothers arrived to pick up their sons. Of course the boys rushed up to them exclaiming about their adventure. The mothers were generally appalled and horrified, and the boys were scolded. When I arrived back from my chore I found my staff had been scolded as well.

I realized I had stirred up a hornet’s nest, and later found out I even had caused a major marital quarrel, for a wife complained about my brutality to her husband, and he had told his beloved not to be such a…well…the word was unwise.

However I was tempted to use worse words. If they wanted their sons to grow up in some sterilized box, they could take them to one of the other Childcares, where the boys weren’t allowed outside of a twenty-five by forty yard playground, and spent all their time sitting and playing video games. And what is more…

My wife told me to take a hike, and I think I was quite wise to do so. She is much better at the diplomatic side of our business than I am. I’m not quite sure how she managed it, but no mother said a word to me, though I did get some disapproving glances for a week or so.

Now we have permission slips. I will not so much as harm a little worm, teaching a child to bait a hook, without permission.

The story about the woodchuck did enter local lore, and I was unable to pick up a newspaper at the local market for a while without getting joshed about it. I could only shrug, and comment about how times have changed, since I was a boy, “Time was, a boy was a hero for killing vermin, and supplying a bit of meat for the table, but I reckon now it only gets you scolded.”

However the woodchuck stew did turn out tasty, and the boys liked it.

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5 thoughts on “GROUNDHOG STEW

  1. Great story and it reminds me of my childhood days and a frog leg dinner prepared by my dad from an 11 quart basket of bulldogs. About a 1/2 hour of catching in those days!
    So, did I miss the recipe? I looked twice but can’t find it…….

    • My Dad used to sizzle up Frogs Legs in a pan with onions and butter. They were a bit rubbery, but as I recall I liked them. His Dad, (my grandfather) used to take him and my uncle out on a boat on the Charles River and catch a lot for Saturday morning breakfast. They would dangle a hook over the lily pads with a red reg attached.

      That same section of river is now the junction of I-95 and I-90 west of Boston, and is an amazing jumble of highways and ramps. A lot has changed since 1928.

  2. Caleb, you are fortunate to have had those childhood experiences with your dad. Your writing reminds me of the multiple visits I made with an indigenous farmer/jack-of-all-trades/ and shaman in Ecuador fifteen and more years ago. Fermin, his wife, and three sons and daughter lived in several well-made dwellings he and his sons had built along the edge of a small river. They were far from any town, stores, and other conveniences. It was the first time in my life I was spending time with people who were close to being self-sufficient. The thing that amazed me is that they carried it off with incredible grace and good humor. They were hard working yet the work happened in bursts and was focused on accomplishing specific tasks. That left plenty of time for sitting and chatting, telling stories, and laughing. Fermin and his wife America were probably the most modest and self-collected people I have ever known, and they had passed on those qualities to their four kids. I was also fortunate to have met Fermin’s parents in their last days. They had come to spend those days with Fermin in another dwelling he put up near his own. I have a photo of the entire family I will try to scan to show you, but I don’t have a scanner here to do that.

    • Actually I never could get enough time with my Dad. He was usually busy, which is likely why I treasured the time I did get with him. Then he vanished during crucial years, when I was twelve to sixteen, which of course made the craving all the stronger. So I got to know him quite well during two times I lived on his farm, 1971-1973, and 1988-1990.

      That experience with Fermin sounds very interesting. You’ll have to tell me how in the world you came to meet a person way out on the edge of so-called civilization.

  3. Pingback: LOCAL VIEW –Reptiles Rule, Almost– | Sunrise's Swansong

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