NOTE TO READERS: John Dunn was a well-known local historian and storyteller, born in 1919 and the son of an Almonte doctor. John passed away in 2006; his son Michael shares these stories with us. More about John Dunn.
In mid-July I found the Pakenham oracle at home. Stooping low in reverential approach to his august presence, and with familiarity of long standing, I said, “G’day, Johnny.” Using the vernacular would indicate to the oracle the kind of life I’d led since my last visit, and I’d heard it was also the customary greeting of the ancient Greeks coming to consult their oracle at Delphi. The Pakenham oracle was ready.
“G’day, g’day,” his echo to my greeting bounced off the tamarack walls of the den.
“Johnny,” said I again, to open up the delicate matter on my mind, “There’s a rumour in the air these days concerning the legend of Groundhog Day.”
“Oh, I see. T’wouldn’t be the first time, I’m sure,” said he.
“You must be aware,” I went on, “That sceptics have infiltrated the Ottawa Valley since the days of yore, and many of our people are now in real danger.”
“Oh, how’s that?”
“Danger is their dwindling faith. They’re losing trust in the legends. Take Groundhog Day. The fact that the groundhog always comes out of his den on February 2nd and looks around for his shadow, well, now some people say that’s all hokum.”
“Heh, heh,” laughed the Big O, recalling by instinct the days of the upper classes and the plane people in the township. “It’s only when you get right all the way down into it that you come to the hidden meanings,” said he.
“Like burrowing under?” I asked, searching for inner revelations.
“That’s right,” came the response. “It’s always been a deep matter. And you don’t turn Tory to find answers to deep matters like the Groundhog’s return. When you get right into it you pretty soon find there’s no room to turn around.”
I wondered if my query had caused confusion in the oracle’s geography, and sought to bring us back into daylight.
“You must have known a good many groundhogs in your time in the township,” I remarked.
“Mostly Tories though,” he replied unblinkingly. “Danged if we’ll ever see an end to them in these parts. A plague on all their parentheses.”
“When did they come into the Ottawa Valley?” I asked.
“Danged if I can recall for certain,” said Johnny. “They were here in plenty over a hundred years ago. I remember it well even though I was small at the time.”
“That must have been in your early years on the mountain.”
“That’s right. I was small at the time I was born. Small for my age that is.”
“And that’s when you lived up on the mountain, the Pakenham mountain?”
“Yes, that’s a fact too.”
We were closing in on the Groundhog’s tracks. I hoped to pin the facts down for indisputable proof. The oracle seemed ready for the critical query.
“What was the earliest date you ever witnessed the groundhog come out of its burrow?” I thrust the issue forward.
“February 2nd,” came the response. “No dispute about that.”
“How can you be so sure,” I asked, using the query put out by those of littler faith who had infiltrated into the Valley in the present millennium.
“It’s one of the most highly respected legends of the Valley,” affirmed the oracle.
“Still,” I persisted, “There’s a whole crowd of people nowadays, well-educated, computer-literate, bottom-line directors, all of whom tell you openly that’s all hokum. Not a shred of proof in it at all at all.”
For a moment the oracle seemed hurt by this accusation, and shuddered at the thought that veiled deceit might be lingering in his tamarack den. “At all at all,” he muttered, saying “How do you spell at all at all.”
“One ‘l'”, I said, and the echo stopped.
“I thought as much,” came the oracle again. “Thought there for a moment my ears had picked up some Tory trick.”
“Or an echo of a social contract,” I offered, determined to run the legend of the groundhog to ground without watching any summer clouds go by, or setting a guard out to watch for the shadow of the hawk.
The Pakenham oracle felt the wave of determination too. “Now, I mind the time,” he began, “Oh, it seems an awful long time ago — just after the whales left the township. And you’d know the place I’m thinking of down among the plane people, the place where one of the whales got stranded and left his bones down there, a place just below the mountain…”
“Yes, I know the place,” I agreed.
“Well, it was close to that place where the first groundhog was sighted in the township, and that was probably the first in the whole of the Ottawa Valley.”
“Great,” I said, seeing as how we were now burrowing in. “Would that have been in Adam’s time?” I asked.
“I’d say that’d be about right,” declared the oracle.
“And that’d be the time the groundhog came to stay?”
“Danged close to that.”
“And so that’s how the legend began?”
“That’d be right.”
“But, oracle,” I pleaded, “Some say the legend is just another Tory plot that we’ve got stuck with.”
My statement, though well-meaning, must have struck the oracle a severe blow, for it seemed to plumb the hollows of his misery. He quivered like a fly trapped in a cobweb, coughed discreetly twice, and his eyes rose up full of evidence, hard evidence, of the kind that would be indisputable even on a pool room corner. I waited breathlessly.
“There was an incident a number of years ago at a place down on the 10th line,” came his opening. “I mind it well, for it happened not more than 20 rods from my uncle’s place.”
The oracle paused to let vivid recollections gather and settle into the pattern of memory.
“T’was in early July, like right now, and the grass new and jumping up all over. My cousin noticed a young groundhog whose mother had been picked off by the hawk a few days earlier. The youngster was having difficulty, being on its own, and my cousin couldn’t help himself: he offered assistance to the creature, a shallow bowl full of bread crusts, and the orphan seemed to appreciate that little act of kindness.”
“Do that kindness once to a stray,” said I, quoting an opinion of Hansard from the township’s Supreme Court, “And you’ve got a friend for life.”
“Well, siree, that little critter finished off the crusts and then just followed my cousin in through the back kitchen to the screen door, and right into the kitchen. Not even waiting to be asked, he waltzed right over to a place near the back of the kitchen range and curled up right there, just as if my cousin’d been the bellboy at the Royal York Hotel.”
“Now I can tell you, right away that there critter and my cousin found themselves with a mutual understanding, the kind that a Tory would call “an on-going arrangement.” The little critter started to grow faster and faster. He didn’t follow my cousin around during the day: not at all. Daytime he spent behind the stove in the kitchen. Sundown, however, he’d go outside, and forage around, and disappear into some hole in the bushes for the night. But come breakfast time, just before the hawk’s on the wing, he’d come and scratch on the screen door, and they’d let him in, just like a house pet of any other kind, dog or cat or what.”
“Fact is, the old collie dog got so used to the critter that he’d barely open one eye, oh, mebbe half-way to watch the groundhog’s comings and goings. Nothing strange and unusual about the critter after such familiarity all summer.”
My head rocked in wonderment. “What did the neighbours think of this “on-going arrangement”? I asked.
“People passing on the road in front of the house on the way to the village with horse and buggy often stopped to enquire after “your visitor” as they called the groundhog, ’cause they’d never seen one in a country kitchen before. Oh, t’was all very different.”
“I suppose by summer’s end they’d found a name for the visitor,” I enquired.
“Indeed yes,” replied the oracle.
“And fitting for the circumstances?”
“Exactly. They called him ‘John A.'”
I squirmed, helplessly.
“So township people’d say ‘Whoa’ to the horse on the way just so as they could stop long enough to enquire about ‘John A.’ and ask “Is John A. able to sit up and take nourishment today?”
And the like of that. Oh, I tell you, it became the talk of the township, that groundhog.”
Jealousy bit me.
“Come the first signs of fall, however, in early October,” mused the oracle, full now of the folly of harbouring a stray in summer time, “The critter began to show signs of a falling body, as if its legs were growing shorter each day. It went into a kind of daze, went off its feed, moped about, scarcely opening its eyes when anyone enquired about him.”
“Then one morning, my cousin noticed a strange sight at the roadside. The township had done some work on the road and had made a cut through a sandbank right opposite the driveway. There, in that sandbank, facing south, my cousin noticed a new groundhog hole.”
“A brand new burrow?” I asked.
“Exactly,” agreed the oracle.
My eyelids began coming together.
“That evening there came no scratching at the screen door at the back of the house. The little cabin my cousin’d made for ‘John A.’ at the back of the stove remained empty. They could only conclude that ‘John A.’ had returned to the wild. For winter.”
A clenched fist knuckled cobwebs off my eyes.
“Come Groundhog Day, next February 2nd,” the oracle was saying, “And the thermometer sittin’ on 25 below, n’ snow higher than the rail fences, and a grizzly wind scraping the kitchen window at my cousin’s place, my uncle was sittin’, readin’ the Ottawa Farm Journal. It was one o’clock.”
I sat up, and nodded understandingly.
“‘There’s a funny sound out at the back’,” madam speaker of that assembly announced.
“‘What kind of sound?'” asked His Honour.
“‘Like someone trying to rap with a pair of mitts on. Could it be somebody in trouble out there?'”
“‘I’ll go and see,'” my cousin said, getting up and going out the back door.
“In a minute they heard him exclaim: ‘Well, I’ll be! Why you old, torn-down, muffin-monster! What in the world do you know about this!'” he announced. “‘It’s John A. come back!'”
“The Farm Journal fell crumpled to the floor. Madam Speaker stood stock still. My cousin led in a procession of two, himself in the van, ‘John A.’ in rear, right into the kitchen. ‘John A.’ dragged himself across the floor as if he’d been roused early, but was able to take his usual seat under the hot water tank at the back of the kitchen stove.”
“‘Well, siree, don’t that beat all!'” said the Journal’s reader, staring at John A. in amazement.
Amazement swept over me on hearing this. “Was John A. peaked-looking?” I enquired.
“A little drawn, certainly, and peaked, particularly around the gills,” replied Johnny. “But on such a fiercely-cold day as that John A. seemed happy enough to have dodged the fox on the way to the house, and the big Arctic owl that had been hanging around the neighbourhood since the New Year started.”
“He stayed?” I dared to ask.
“All summer,” the oracle proclaimed. “Happy in the township of Pakenham, happy as a clam, bed and breakfast every day.”
Happiness for the legend crowded me in the tamarack-lined den. I realized it couldn’t go on forever: the proof I had been seeking for so long was settling to the bottom, like raisins in a plumb pudding. A bit of top dressing would round it off. I coughed and the oracle went on.
“‘John A.’ spent the whole summer in the township, but when the first chill of October struck again, he disappeared from the happy household. My cousin noticed a new burrow on the south side of the road across from their driveway and concluded ‘John A.’ had again obeyed some inner call in his psyche, and, as they say in the army, he figured ‘John A.’ had gone to ground.”
I brushed sweat from my eyes.
As if in a mist, enjoying the peace and prosperity of Pakenham till late through September, I saw John A. once again, as an old virus struck and he went off his feed once more. Got clumsy in the ankles too, grew lower to the ground, and finally departed.
The oracle too began to cough from the strain inside, a small cough, like a sympathetic wheeze, the kind one might hear from a funeral director, or from behind the pulpit in church.
“A third Groundhog Day came round,” the oracle was saying, “But it was some different. A late January thaw lingered on into February and brought weather more awful than a Tory landslide. Everything damp, raw, and terror-struck. Inside my cousin’s house, of course, the fire was on in the cook stove as usual at one o’clock, His Honour was again into the Farm Journal, and danged if there wasn’t an echo of that peculiar scratching coming on the house from the direction of the back door.”
“His Honour didn’t waste one second. ‘If that’s yourself on the comeback trail, John A.,’ he shouted, ‘You’ve got my vote right now.'”
“My cousin threw open the back door and got a burst of sleet across his face. There too stood ‘John A.’, bedraggled, sleet-soaked, and a trifle more peaked round the gills. ‘Come in, John A., Come in, man,’ my cousin shouted, ‘You’re the most welcome visitor on a frightful day like this. A sure sign of spring for all on the Pakenham mountain.'”
“‘Glory be to God and all the saints’ His Honour shouted. “Sure what in the world would tempt you, John A., to come out on a day like this?'”
“‘Sure and why wouldn’t he?’ madam speaker intervened. ‘After all it is the 2nd of February, Groundhog Day.'”
“‘But John A.’s only been gone into hydration in October last,’ said His Honour.”
“‘I’m sure you must mean ‘hibernation’, madam speaker corrected.”
“‘Well, anyway, now that he’s here, he’s a true sign that spring’s just round the corner. The very least we could do is offer him a drink to take the chill off him.'”
“I’ll get a dish of water from the horse trough,’ the cousin offered.
“‘Oh, keep away from that’, His Honour replied. ‘On a stomach as empty as John A.’s the hard water would sicken him sorely.'”
“‘Well,’ said madam speaker, ‘Would one of you fine gentlemen fix up the seat for ‘John A.”, the one he had last time he came visiting, and I’ll arrange something for his groaning stomach. Bread crusts in a bowl of warm milk with a tablespoon of Father John’s Elixir. That’ll rouse his spirits.'”
“‘Father John’s, woman,’ His Honour exclaimed in alarm, ‘What kind of prescription is that? You can see John A.’s not sufferin’ from the grippe.'”
“‘No,’ the aunt said, ‘But you can see as plain as I can that he’s sure not dried out yet either. I’m sure a tablespoon of the creature in Father John’s will rouse his spirits and lift him out of the peakeds quicker than anything else.'”
Overjoyed as I was to hear of John A.’s good fortune on the mountain, I wondered about the state of the oracle in the den too.
“Father John’s was a prescription made in Quebec for the kind of upsets that come on a person during an Ottawa Valley winter, as I remember,” I put to the oracle.
“That’s it exactly. Very popular with the men in the bush, those working in the shanties, particularly the teamsters. They’d try it out on themselves before they’d trust a little of it to a horse with the heaves.”
The oracle winced and made a wry face. A spasm lasted but a few seconds and passed off without leaving any permanent signs of damage. “Anyway, old ‘John A.’ spent another summer in the township, seeming by this time to know when his old friends on the way to the village would be passing so he could go out to wave a paw to them.”
I nodded too, a little.
“And in that October, he left for his accustomed hole in the ground, but, I have to tell you he never returned come next Groundhog Day. I guess he’d proven the point though. The Groundhog Day legend, ain’t that what they’re calling it now?”
“Oracle,” I said, addressing the august one, “Yours is testimony with truth in it. Personal and universal, nothing Tory in it whatever. But tell me, do you think it powerful enough to convince those soothsayers, smooth-talking, bottom-line feeders who speak of Groundhog Day as nothing but ‘hokum’?”
“Pay no attention to them” said the oracle. “That’s nothing but another Tory plot they’re hatchin’. Entirely.”
“One last question, good oracle, if you please. The tears welled up in my eyes when I heard from you that ‘John A.’ had failed to return after a fourth try to prove the legend. Surely he’s not simply died in harness?”
“Not on your life,” the oracle thundered, “Not on your life!”
“Does anyone know where he went? After all there’s another Groundhog Day coming on February 2nd
“Yes, indeed,” said Johnny “His whereabouts, his present whereabouts, like it or not, represent another Tory manoeuvre: ‘John A.’s been elevated to the Senate.”
I felt suddenly faint, an attack of the vapours. Struggling to get up and find help in the fresh air outside I bowed low before the oracle to thank him for bringing the legend of the Groundhog’s return into the light for all True Believers.
As I backed out from the tamarack-lined den, I left a small offering on the threshold, a jar of fresh honey and a small loaf of raisin bread. My understanding is that’s the way the ancient Greeks did it when their oracle was being weaned.
21 Dec 97