How Much Wood Could A Woodchuck Chuck, If A Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood?

In the printed and digital versions of the Spokesmen’s Club Manual that I have used in various roles, as instructional material for a public speaking class in Thailand, in my own progress through Spokesmen’s Club in both Florida and Oregon, and as an evaluator of the speeches of others, there is a section for tongue twisters. One of the most noted tongue twisters of the genre is the following one: How much would could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? As much wood as a woodchuck could, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. How much wood is that? Based on various estimates of the burrowing speed of marmots, if a woodchuck could move would at the same efficiency as it moves the dirt in its burrows, it could move about 700 pounds on a good day. Other estimates, based on its digestion rates, figure that a groundhog could ingest about 22 cubic inches of wood a day. Neither number is as efficient as that of wood chucking rodents like beavers, but at least they provide a concrete answer to the titular tongue twister [1].

Groundhogs are known by a dizzying and confusing array of names. It being Groundhog day as I write this [2], and coming from a particularly unsentimental farming family background in Western Pennsylvania as I do, groundhogs have long been a subject of focus for my relatives. How did an animal that doesn’t chuck wood get the name woodchuck in the first place? The best answer appears to be that woodchuck is a transliteration of an Algonquin word wuchak, and that when early English and American fur traders asked where the fur came from, they were given the native word and then transliterated it as woodchuck. The animal is still regularly killed for sport, fur, and even food, and it is fond of alfalfa, which made it plentiful in my family’s farm, since we used alfalfa as the grass of choice when leaving parts of our fields fallow. Other people call this rodent by the names whistlepig, chuck, wood-shock, groundpig, whistler, thickwood badger, Canada Marmot, monax, moonack, weenusk, and red monk, depending on the region [3].

In my mid-to-late 20’s I helped out as a judge of various forensics competitions in Central Florida, and were I familiar with the groups that did so here, usually homeschoolers and parochial schoolers, I would do so here in Oregon as well. Of course, neither Oregon nor Florida are places where groundhogs are commonly found, but in a place where they could be found, a suitable question for a Lincoln-Douglas debate would be the following prompt: “Groundhogs are a menace and a threat to people and should be exterminated.” Evidence in support of exterminating marmots could include their role in the film Groundhog Day in prolonging Bill Murray’s agony, the fact that their burrows are destructive to gardens and farmland, cause economic damage by wrecking tractor axles, and even cause soil settlement that damages building foundations. On the other side of the picture, marmots are cute animals, do a fair job of exterminating themselves through aggressive behavior, and their burrows home animals like skunks and red foxes that hunt vermin and pests and so groundhogs indirectly help farmers thereby. As they have a mixed record, like most beings, they are a fitting subject for debate.

One aspect of woodchucks is beyond debate, though, and that is their negative aspect in the sort of heathen augury that they are best known for. Groundhog day is one of those pagan festivals where one of any number of famous marmots are used as natural weather prognosticators to determine the length of winter. Whether one is talking about Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog (of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin), Staten Island Chuck, Smith Lake Jake (from Graysville, Alabama) or General Beauregard Lee (from near Atlanta, Georgia), there are many groundhogs in North America whose shadows are examined to determine whether there will be a long winter or not. This is not a new tradition, as the first recorded reference to the festival in English dates back to the 1840’s [4]. Even further back, the festival relates to the pagan Celtic festival of Imbolc, and to general heathen customs of bogus weather prognostication, and thus is a relic of the pagan customs of nature worship of Europe that have been syncretized into contemporary practice.

What are we to make of all this? For one, believers are not to adopt the customs of the heathen, especially with regards to augury and prognostication, which are expressly forbidden for believers in the Bible [5]. Whatever our feelings are about groundhogs, they should be left in peace to burrow, and should not be used in vain attempts to figure out how much longer winter will last in heathen superstition. Marmots are efficient builders of burrows, fierce animals that have a low social cohesion (not unlike contemporary Americans), and pests that have friends who help farmers out by killing even worse vermin. They are not weathermen, though, and any such use of marmots as a way of compromising between various heathen systems of calendar observance for when winter ends and when spring begins is inaccurate, self-contradictory (as different marmots given different answers), and ungodly to boot.

[1] See, for example, the following:

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?”, Spokane Chronicle (July 11, 1988), p. A9.

P.A. Paskevich and T.B. Shea (July–August 1995). “The Ability of Woodchucks to Chuck Cellulose Fibers”. Annals of Improbable Research 1 (4): 4–9.

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/groundhog-day/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/25/dont-blame-this-sleeping-satellite/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog_Day

[5] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/may-day-the-curious-connection-between-paganism-and-socialism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/book-review-in-search-of-ancient-wisdom/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/book-review-the-discovery-of-middle-earth/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/putting-the-saturn-back-in-saturnalia/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Much Wood Could A Woodchuck Chuck, If A Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood?

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Art Of Public Speaking: Lessons From The Greatest Speeches In History | Edge Induced Cohesion

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