I have a house in Ottumwa, Iowa, with an extra lot adjacent to it. The property used to have a large, very deep ravine behind it, rendering most of the land unusable. Over a twenty-year span, we filled in the gorge and now have a house that sits on a rolling hillside, with a huge yard. I’ve owned it for many years, most of which it’s been a rental property - but I have lived there a couple times and some really good things happened while there.
We stayed there while Melissa and I were searching for just the right home to buy. We eventually found just the house we wanted, but we were still living in that rental house when we got a puppy and named her June. Since the day we met that cute little border collie-blue heeler mix, she has loved to play ball.
From the back porch, I could throw a tennis ball way out into the yard. Because the house sat much higher than the back of the lot, it appeared I was throwing the ball much farther than I am capable. It worked out well. I got to look like a pro athlete and June loved making those long runs to retrieve that ball.
One beautiful spring morning, Melissa stood in the kitchen window enjoying her coffee while overlooking the yard. The rising sun created beautiful colors and shadows across the lawn. “Come look,” she said softly, “Gus is in the back yard.” Having no idea who the heck Gus was, I joined her.
I didn’t see anybody in the back yard, but there was a very large groundhog sitting upright on his back feet, eating clover. He held the little round, white blooms in his front paws; his whiskers wiggled rapidly as he nibbled away the flower, stuffing it in his cheeks, then munched down the stem like people will do with spaghetti. The angle of the sun cast a long shadow from the marmot. “Look at the size of that groundhog!” I said, pointing him out to Melissa. She wrinkled her face and looked at me oddly.
“That’s Gus.” She said as if I should have known.
“Gus?” I repeated, “You named a groundhog Gus?”
“Yes. Gus.” She explained, “He’s out there every morning, so I named him.”
Doing the morning show at the radio station, I would leave the house (usually in a hurry) about four hours before Melissa had to be at work. In my haste, I’d never noticed a groundhog in the back yard. I did however, start noticing Gus in the yard when I drove by during the day and in the evenings, especially when I was mowing the lawn. It seemed he was always out there eating and he wasn’t bothered much by my lawn tractor.
Sometimes I would talk to him from the seat of my John Deere, “Hey Gus, if you’d eat more, I could mow less, but you are getting a bit portly there, big fella.” I’d laugh and keep riding by. Another time, I just couldn’t resist, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He shook his head, rolled his dark eyes and snatched another clover stalk.
One day Melissa and I were driving down the alley behind our house. Gus was in the yard eating as usual. “Gus is looking kind of thin,” I said with concern, “I wonder if he’s feeling okay?”
“That’s not Gus,” She said as if I should have known, “Gus is over there. That’s Millie.”
“Millie?” I repeated with a mischievous smile, “Gus has a lady friend? Atta boy, Gus, you da man!”
I drew a look of disapproval from my wife, “She’s not just a lady friend, she’s his better half. She is a proper lady and I’ll not have you speaking of her in that tone, thank you very much.” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
After moving into our new house, just a few blocks away, we would often go by the old house (once again a rental property) and we would see Gus and Millie. I also saw them every time I went to mow the big lawn. They would be out in the yard eating together; clover tops, daises and any other flowering weeds they came upon. Millie didn’t seem to mind the lawn tractor either. Gus must have told her the guy on the mower is safe; albeit a little annoying at times. They always seemed to watch out for one another.
One day while mowing, I passed Gus, “Hey Gus.” I called out in jest, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if…”
Millie stood up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt then interrupted me in mid-sentence, “Okay, give it a rest, lawn boy! We’ve heard that one a million times, alright?” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
Gus and Millie never seemed to be very far apart. If they were spooked, they always ran away in the same direction. While Gus and Millie moved together in one direction, Melissa and I moved together in another.
Our long term plan was to relocate in Minnesota. We found our house on the north shore. Our youngest daughter would be heading off to college in the fall and I hired someone to mow the big lawn at the rental property. Things were falling into place nicely. The time was right for us to go.
At our new home in Minnesota, we have a lot more wildlife going through our yard. Deer and moose, bears, wolves, lynx, fox, martens and fishers. Of course, squirrels, rabbits, racoons and this one possessed chipmunk. We have all kinds of birds too, ravens and eagles, seagulls, hummingbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and many more. But for all the wild things in our yard, we just don’t see many soulmates like Gus and Millie.
We did see a pair of pileated woodpeckers together in a tree, doing what I thought was a courting ritual – until someone explained they were both males. (how was I to know?) There’s also a lot of grouse courting that goes on in the springtime, under the apple tree. It’s easy to spot the male grouse. He’s the one that struts an awful lot like that swanky guy in a nightclub. I miss old Gus and Millie.
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Iowa. I drove down the alley behind our rental property, stopping to take a couple pictures of a large woodchuck in the yard behind the house. He was sitting on his hind legs, eating dandelions in our back yard. I smiled and wondered, “Could it be? Nah, it can’t be.” It has been almost six years since we moved away.
Less than a minute later, another woodchuck, a smaller one, lumbered across the alley, passing in front of my van. It kept going until it was within ten feet of the first, where she also started eating the bright yellow flowers tops of the dandelions.
Curious, I rolled down my window and called out softly, “Gus?” The bigger marmot stopped chewing for a moment and stared at me as if he knew me; he recognized my voice. I smiled, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He rolled his big dark eyes and picked another dandelion. The other groundhog sat up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt. I laughed, even though I knew I was about to be put in my place.
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