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A mystery of life

I was on my hands and knees at the west end of my house this afternoon, pruning four unruly azaleas, when a pile of dirt reminded me of a woodchuck that tried to tunnel a home right beside my house's foundation last summer.

It tunneled in. I took a shovel and filled the tunnel. It dug itself out, then tunneled in again. I filled the hole back in with dirt. This went on for three or four days before the woodchuck got the message and moved on. But still, it left behind all of this loose dirt piled against the foundation.

Today, as I began spreading that pile of dirt, I pondered the age-old question:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

I think it's necessary first to define "chuck." I don't think it means to tap gently, especially under the chin, as a playful or affectionate gesture. I say this because I don't believe any kind of wood has a chin—although the idea of a woodchuck sitting up on its rump and chucking a sapling is kind of cute, isn't it? Ah, if only trees had chins. But they don't. I don't think even Tolkien's ents had chins. So how could a woodchuck chuck wood?

Besides, it's difficult to picture a woodchuck getting close enough to someone who has a chin—Celine Dion, for instance—to give her chin a good chuck. And her chin is so substantial that the woodchuck might have tough luck with the chuck. Besides, it hasn't yet been proved that Celine Dion's chin is made of wood.

This means that the woodchuck must be chucking wood in the sense that it is tossing it or throwing it. But this makes no sense. First, how would a woodchuck chuck wood? With its little paws? How could a woodchuck chuck wood without opposable thumbs? It might be able to, say, put its paw under some wood and then kind of flip it into the air, but that hardly qualifies as a chuck.

Then there's the question of where the woodchuck would get the wood to chuck. If we're talking about so much wood that the question is one of how much wood the woodchuck would chuck (again, if it could chuck), then we've got to assume the woodchuck is in, say, a lumber yard, or maybe a patch of woods that had been clear-cut, leaving behind lots of little chuckable pieces of wood.

This woodchuck, though, was tunneling right beside my house. So this whole chucking wood thing baffled me.

Fortunately, I then remembered an alternative version of the woodchuck question:

How much ground would a groundhog grind if a groundhog could grind ground?

This seemed to make more sense. After all, it was a pile of dirt—ground, if you will—at the side of my house that got me thinking about all of this. It wasn't a pile of chucked wood. The only wood that would be chucked this afternoon was azalea cuttings, and I was the one doing the chucking, and azalea branches are all brushy anyway and aren't very good for chucking, neither by me nor by a less-experienced chucker like a woodchuck. I thought my switching my focus from wood to ground was a real breakthrough.

But then I realized I didn't understand how a groundhog grinds ground. Does it chew it and then spit it out, bugs and worms and all? (Ewww!) Does it push down and then twist its little paws on the clumps of earth? Does it sit on the ground and then wiggle its little butt around to grind ground? This vexed me, but then I realized that perhaps it's not essential that I know how a groundhog grinds ground, because clearly groundhogs grind ground or else people wouldn't be asking how much ground a groundhog could grind. (As for the "if a groundhog could grind ground" part of the question, I think it's a red herring.)

Having settled that in my mind, I began to wonder about the phrase "how much." Did it refer to volume or weight? If it refers to volume, then the groundhog by my house did a great deal of chucking—check that, I mean grinding—because of the size of the pile of ground that had been ground. But the soil at that corner of my house is sandy, as opposed to the soil around most of the rest of my house, which is a heavy clay that lends itself neither to being ground nor chucked. So it seems only fair the "how much" question should involve weight, not volume—kind of like the fine print on the side of a cereal box, which tells us the package is sold by weight, not by volume, and is packed as full as possible by modern packing equipment, and some settling naturally occurs during shipping. Even though the ground that had been ground by the groundhog had not been packed or shipped, it probably had settled over the winter—all the more reason why the question of "how much" should be answered by weight.

The real X factor here, though, is the temperament of the woodchuck. Even though the answer to "how much" would be measured in, say, kilograms, the weight surely would be dependent on the ambitions of the groundhog. The groundhog beside my house did a lot of chucking, but it's entirely possible another woodchuck could chuck dirt from another new tunnel in the same spot this year and prove to be much less ambitious than the one from last year. It might simply decide to cross the street and live under the neighbor's front porch instead.

So, at the end of a couple of hours of pruning azaleas, picking up leaves and weeding, during which time I had contemplated these things and more, I decided that the only answer is that a groundhog would grind as much ground as it felt like grinding.

Assuming it had been a groundhog grinding the ground, that is.

Because for all I know, that animal last summer could have been a badger.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 24th, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)
I was tormented by that phrase for years and years. When Wolfram came out with their holy grail, the Alpha, I asked it.http://www.wolframalpha.com/ Go on Alpha and ask it the question and it will give you a cool answer. Hell, go ask Alpha any question about math, science, logic, problems......anything.......this program is already changing science big time.
Apr. 24th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
It did well when I asked it the age-old question about angels, dancing and the head of a pin.

Sadly, however, it came up empty on the most pressing issue of our generation: Stones or Beatles?
Apr. 26th, 2010 02:59 am (UTC)
Thanks for this delightfully entertaining post at the end of a long day. The Celine Dion comment certainly warranted the guffaw it received. I couldn't help but wonder, would a woodchuck have chucked George Washington's wooden teeth?
Apr. 26th, 2010 11:04 am (UTC)
Celine Dion walks into a bar. The bartender looks at her and says, "Hey, why the long face?"

Apr. 26th, 2010 08:35 pm (UTC)
Just now catching up on all I missed while away. This is some heavy duty contemplation!

We chased one back through the hole under the fence he'd created, and man, did I block that section of the fence up but good! I sunk in some strips of chicken wire, heaped on loads of new dirt, added a few decorative logs for good measure, and so far, so good.

Now, about that badger...
Apr. 26th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty much a live-and-let-live guy when it comes to critters out here in the country (as the deer who shred my shrubs each winter will attest), but I wasn't comfortable with an animal burrowed in next to the foundation. There's plenty of other real estate out here. I was glad it left without my having to do anything but fill the hole in a couple of times.
May. 1st, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
Very, very funny. But I am confused. Are woodchucks and groundhogs the same?
May. 1st, 2010 01:29 pm (UTC)
Yep, which led me to call one a "groundchuck" once.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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