Late last school year, my daughter and I accidentally discovered a trio of “baby” woodchucks living at her school. I say “baby” because they weren’t fully grown, but they were old enough to be out on their own. They seemed to live in the grassy areas at the edges of the parking lots and around the soccer fields and tennis courts behind my daughter’s school. We usually go home that way at the end of the day, winding around through the back parking lot where the busses usually congregate, past the grassy medians. We would often see the woodchucks hanging out together in the grass and bushes on the edge of the parking lot or just behind the fence surrounding the soccer field. They were usually together, all three of them, so we thought they had come from the same litter. Whenever they would see us stopping to look at them, they would dive into the nearest burrow entrance. They had hidey-holes all over the place, and their burrow must have been a huge maze spreading under the ground.
Over the summer, my daughter and I would swing by the school from time to time to check up on these little guys. We started calling them “The Chuckles”, because they just didn’t seem large enough or grown enough to wear the title of Woodchuck. We watched them grow up, right before our eyes. For most of the summer, they were little and cute, scurrying for their hiding spots or hanging out munching on grass and flowers. And then, suddenly, they were HUGE. It seemed like it happened overnight. We stopped by to see if we could find them before we left for our family trip to Maine at the end of the summer. And then, just a couple of weeks later, school started. We saw one of The Chuckles at the end of that first day of school, and neither of us could believe how much the little guy (or girl) had grown.
The thing about The Chuckles is that they just kind of hung out and did their own thing. A school and its surrounding grounds would seem, in many ways, to be a less than ideal place for a wild critter to live. And yet, I suppose this is as close as one can get to “open space” in an overpopulated and overgrown urban area. The Chuckles never seemed to care much about the comings and goings of the people around them. And, in turn, most people didn’t pay any attention to The Chuckles. I suppose this worked in their favor. I liked that about The Chuckles. It seemed brave to me: this trio of little animals facing a huge world and not falling to pieces in the process. And, in a way, I think I identified with them. It was like they just wanted to live their lives, quietly and on their own terms. I tend to feel this way, too. A lot. Especially now, when it seems there are more people than ever pushing their noses into my business and shouting at me for attention or looking for their fifteen minutes in the spotlight. Mostly, I want a quiet life, and I want to be left alone. Maybe the woodchuck is my spirit animal or something. Or, maybe I romanticized their little existence.
Whatever the case, knowing The Chuckles existed and that they were just kind of hanging out and doing their thing even in the midst of the craziness of this place where we live … I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but it made me happy. It made me feel like, somehow, there was something still lovely and pure and kind of innocent left in the world. Well, if one could call a woodchuck “lovely”. Perhaps most people wouldn’t. They aren’t particularly attractive animals. They are a bit bumbly and ungainly. But they are also pretty darn cute. At least, I think so. And seeing The Chuckles at the end of the day always lifted my spirits.
Sadly, one of The Chuckles died on Monday. As I turned into the school parking lot, I saw his furry little body. I suppose he got caught out in the lot when the busses were leaving, and he probably zigged when he should have zagged. The busses must have run over him. I felt inexplicably sad, as if I had lost a little part of myself. As I sat in the car and waited for my daughter to come out of school, I found there were tears running down my cheeks. I could not stop crying. It’s so silly, isn’t it? I mean, it was just a woodchuck. There are at least dozens of them running around here, and, possibly, hundreds (or more) in the state where I live.
In a way, though, my instincts were right. I did lose a bit of myself. Somehow, I had been able to forget about the cruelty of life for a little bit. Somehow, just seeing one of those little guys bumbling along had given my faith in the universe a refreshing bump-up. Maybe it was silly. Maybe it didn’t make any sense. It was a small thing: a tiny little joy in the midst of a world that often seems … well, joyless. And now, that is gone.
RIP, little Chuckle. You lived your life to the fullest and did things your way. I hope you’re out there, somewhere, chucking wood in the Blue Beyond. You made my world a little brighter, and you will be missed.