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Feb 02, 2001

Shadowcaster

Groundhog Day, and I suppose it's too much to expect to actually see a Groundhog today, but I know they're out there. I mentioned having seen one in the Fall, but I used the preferred name of Woodchuck. Preferred by taxonomists, that is: I can't speak for the rodent. Either way, it's the local Marmot, differing little from its compatriots around the globe, with the slight exception of its oracular powers. In fact, people read predictions in all sorts of animals, from bug bristles to pig innards. The Groundhog ritual seems tame, compared to haruspication. Accuracy is a different issue, but it seems to me that they usually predict more Winter, which would be in line with our current forecasts. (Not that humans do much better than Marmots in that department.)

Divination is subject to interpretation: it depends on how you look at things, more than what you look at. Look into the morning sun, and you will miss the shadow falling behind you.

The Groundhog cast no shadow, but shed a light upon my whole experience of Central Park. I've been visiting the Park since the mid seventies, but the sight of a Groundhog, some ten years ago, helped change my perspective on the place: I learned to see ecosystem, as much as artifact.

I've always enjoyed the Park, but I used to be more interested in its artificiality; its calculated landscaping, and its interplay with the city. I must have had a closer focus on that day, sitting above the bit of stream that feeds the Lake, just west of Balcony Bridge. I noticed something moving along the watercourse, fragments through the foliage, but definitely...what? Bigger than a Guinea Pig, but the same shape; squared off profile; coarser coat; longer tail; wilder somehow, but...
I went into the Museum of Natural History and found a back corridor with dioramas of New York State Mammals. There it was: Marmotta monax, the common Woodchuck, AKA Groundhog. I felt reassured, knowing its Latin name.

I'd seen Woodchucks before, on nature walks as a kid, or maybe I'm thinking of a Muskrat. There are all sorts of rodents out there, and not a few in the city. Squirrels are ubiquitous in the Park, and Norway Rats make a living all over town. The Park has Raccoons, too, which are fissipeds, not rodents, and bigger than Woodchucks, but more familiar somehow; suburban scavengers; nocturnal, but brazen. The Woodchuck is more retiring; harder to see, but there it was, in the middle of Manhattan. It seemed so improbable to me.

It was around that time, too, that the Red-tailed Hawks moved in, or at least I started to see them. I was continually surprised at how much there was to see in the Park: just about as much as you were willing to look at.

I've kept on looking, but that Groundhog was a true inspiration. I'd been looking into Shamanism, and the old ways, and I was prepared for the appearance of an initiatory animal, but I'd been expecting something shimmering and white, rather than a grimy rodent.
Revelation is nothing, if not the unexpected.

I saw another Marmot, a few months later, near the Zoo, but that was it for a decade. Then, last Spring, there was a note in the Log Book, reporting a sighting at the Shakespeare Garden. The entry was followed by a comment that this was great news, as they were assumed to have been extirpated.
Apparently not.
Or perhaps these are new ones. It's hard to imagine them making their way to, and through, Manhattan, but stranger things have happened. Last year, a Coyote showed up in the Park, presumably from Westchester, north of the city, where they appear from time to time, moving down from wilder country upstate. The authorities detained the canine, but the Woodchucks are no threat, and at least here they don't have to worry about being rousted out of hibernation by some hierophant of tourism in a top hat.

I never saw the Woodchuck from the Shakespeare Garden, though there were a couple of other reports. The area is mid-park; in the same general vicinity as my first encounter, and near where they were last know to be established, but in the Fall I found one on the Mount, in the far north end of the Park. I would assume it to be a different individual, but you never know. If they can get to the Park, they can certainly move around within it. Maybe they share my taste for the less trafficked areas beyond the Reservoir.

I took the reappearance of the Groundhog, in the first year of the Arboretum, as a kind of confirmation. Whatever its secrets, the rodent had helped to stir in me an interest in the Life of the Park; how the creatures and the plants pursue their own agendas, regardless of the doings of the local humans. Some work in concert with us; some stand in contradiction to our ways, but theirs are the ways of the World that gave us birth, and they are due respect for that, at least. Otherwise, our own shadow will obscure our path, when we should be turning towards the Sun.

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