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February 2, 2004
Iím not going to pretend that Groundhog Day is any sort of major holiday; Iíve generally treated it lightly, pretty much as a joke in 2000, with the old song about eating the critter. There was a photo essay in í03, and some of my typically groan-inducing poetry in í02. The 2001 post however was a different story, and I consider it one of the touchstones of the Arboretum: the tale of how an actual encounter with a groundhog initiated a change in my perception of Central Park. For that alone, Groundhog Day deserves a place in my personal canon of Holidays.
Not that Marmotta monax needs my endorsement. The Holiday remains popular, even though it canít be used to sell much more than one morningís weather report and a few Winter tourist packages. It helps us crack a smile in February, that least-loved of months, but thereís more to it than that. Groundhog Dayís wink-and-a-nod to our Shamanistic past is an admission that, all our modern sophistication and technological prowess notwithstanding, our relationship to the weather, to wild animals, and to the natural world as such, remains mysterious and unpredictable.
Which is to say, even though we know a lot, and track repeating patterns, the exact circumstance of the coming-into-being of a particular February proves to be a wonder each year, even as it remains something to be endured. A joke on us, as much as on the Marmot.
As far as the Park goes, I havenít seen a Groundhog since the Spring of 2001, when I had another couple of sightings on the Mount.
Not a one since.
Nevertheless, hope remains. In fact, we have it on expert authority that M. monax is still present. At least the species was listed in an inventory produced last year by something called BioBlitz. Despite the name, a BioBlitz has nothing to do with germ warfare, but seems to combine hard science with public relations. In an effort to ďincrease public awareness and appreciation of biodiversity and its ability to thrive within an urban environment,Ē teams of scientists, aided by a corps of volunteers (and official logos) descended on the Park over a weekend in late June in an attempt to catalog every living thing within its boundaries.
According to their list, they found the Groundhog (i.e. Woodchuck,) which is more than I can say for myself. But I was in the Park on one of those days, and I saw a bird that the ĎBlitzers missed, a Worm-eating Warbler, quite unexpected for the date. Birds may come and go without accounting, but even more surprising on that day was a misplaced mammal, not indeed a Groundhog, but a smaller, striped, rodent: a Chipmunk.
Everyone knows there are no Chipmunks in Central Park. Parks in the outer boroughs have them, but the heavily used territory in mid-Manhattan seems to be too much for the little ground-dwellers. The BioBlitz didnít report any, so that should settle the issue. But I saw one, on the Mount, right in the same place where I last saw the Groundhog, as a matter of fact..
What to think?
It turns out that there was an attempt to introduce Chipmunks into the Park, part of the same project that included the Screech Owls Iíve mentioned. But that was eight years ago, and it didnít work out. Chipmunks are fine prey for unleashed dogs and roaming cats, not to mention hawks. Central Park just doesnít offer them enough undisturbed habitat to prosper. Theyíre more conspicuous than the field mice I do occasionally see, so I canít believe that a breeding population has managed to sustain itself undetected for years.
All I can suppose is that someone released the Chipmunk into the Park. Probably the usual thing with some kid having to give up on a wild pet. Or could it have been an insidious attempt to fool the BioBlitz, maybe even some sort of fifth column effort from within the organization?
As with so many conspiracies, weíll probably never know. Which brings it all back to Mystery. All I know is that I havenít seen hide nor hair of a Chipmunk in the Park since that day. It seems almost hallucinatory now, but Iím pretty sure it was real. I mean, Iíve got photos.
The Chipmunk didnít tell me anything about the weather, and when it comes down to it, neither did the Groundhog. But they do serve as a caution against magic and science alike; a reminder to look for oneself, and not to place blind faith in experts, whether they are forecasting the future, or testing the opacity of more immediate shadows.