This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
The Story Behind Groundhog Gets a Say
by Pamela Curtis Swallow
A few years ago, I was ill and in a hospital, when a curious thought came to me. It was that I should postpone finishing the humorous fiction book that I’d been writing and begin work on a non-fiction book about groundhogs. I fully expected this odd idea to go away in a few days. But it didn’t.
On a cold winter afternoon, shortly after I was released from the hospital, I attended a meeting of children’s book authors and illustrators. When asked what book I was working on, I found myself answering, “A non-fiction book about groundhogs.” My own words bewildered me, but they interested another writer who overheard my statement. She knew of a wildlife refuge in my area and gave me the name of a wildlife rehabilitator who takes care of orphaned and injured animals. She was sure that this woman would be a good contact for learning about groundhogs.
Again, I found myself following this unexpected path. I telephoned the wildlife rehabilitator, asking if I might speak with her and visit the refuge, as I was beginning research on a book about groundhogs. “Why are you writing the book?” she asked directly. Startled, I awkwardly explained that I wasn’t sure why, but I told her where I’d been when the idea came to me. She excused herself from the phone for a moment while she searched for something she wanted to share with me. When she returned, she said, “This may help to explain it,” and she read a passage from a book about Native American animal totems. She explained that the groundhog is considered by Native Americans to be an ally and a totem for healing. Click. It made sense. I still had much healing to do.
We spoke about groundhogs and decided to meet at the refuge when the weather warmed and groundhogs were likely to be brought in. In the meantime, I began to read all that I could find about groundhogs.
Early one spring morning several weeks later, I was leaving my house to go to the hospital for surgery. I opened my back porch door and there, on the doormat, sat a baby groundhog. It was small and too young to be away from its mother. How had it gotten there? When my dogs barked from inside the house, the little groundhog scrambled off the porch and hid underneath. I had no choice but to continue on to the hospital, and I did so feeling hopeful that both the little groundhog and I would be all right.
When I returned home, there sat the groundhog, back on the mat by the porch door. Relieved that the young animal was fine, I placed it in an empty gerbil cage, to keep it safe. Then I called the wildlife rehabilitator and told her about my mysterious guest. She asked that I bring the groundhog to her; she would give it a special milk formula, shots, and a thorough check-up. Although I wanted to keep the groundhog with me, I understood that a licensed rehabilitator is the right person to care for a wild animal. A trained animal expert knows how to help the animal in such a way that it will be able to return to the wild when mature.
At the refuge, the rehabilitator gently examined the small groundhog. I learned that the groundhog was a female, and I named her Charlotte. She was given milk replacement and placed in a cozy cage, complete with stuffed animals for comfort and company.
I visited Charlotte during her several-week stay at the refuge, and took photographs as she grew. When she was finally old enough to survive in the wild, her kind caregiver drove her to my house, and together we released Charlotte in my back yard. We watched her investigate the area and stayed nearby until we were certain that she was comfortable and confident. It didn’t take her long to find the vegetables I had planted in a special garden just for her.
For many months, I worked on my book, learning all I could about the animal that I believed was my ally. And when I put the words on paper, I tried to do it with humor, affection and respect.
Charlotte continues to share my property. We both have our vegetables and our health.
© Pamela Curtis Swallow
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Pamela Curtis Swallow‘s first book was published in 1986. She’s been writing ever since, and for a wide reading audience—elementary, middle grade and young adult. Her fiction and non-fiction books include: Groundhog Gets A Say (Putnam/Scholastic); It Only Looks Easy (Roaring Brook Press/Scholastic); the Melvil and Dewey Series (Libraries Unlimited), which includes an activity guide entitled Melvil and Dewey Teach Literacy; A Writer’s Notebook (Scholastic), a guide for aspiring young writers; Wading through Peanut Butter (Scholastic); No Promises (Putnam/Scholastic) and Leave It to Christy (Putnam/Scholastic). Pam recently completed a biography of her relative, Ellen Swallow Richards, founder of Ecology. Currently she’s revising Tangled Lines, her fifth middle grade novel. In addition to writing, Pam has spent many years as a teacher and school librarian. Her website is: pamelacurtisswallow.com.
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Want to study with Pamela Curtis Swallow? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Pamela will be leading the Writing for the Children’s Market workshop. Click here to find out more.
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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community.