John Grindrod: Hail to those special groundhogs and their fleeting fame
Every year, I have to laugh as February 2 approaches, because that’s when a rodent seen as a pest by most for the rest of the 364 calendar days becomes important. Yes, indeed, the animal that also received modicum of fame in that tongue twister, “How much wood could a groundhog throw if a groundhog could throw wood?” is actually granted rock star status.
Now, if you’ve been wondering for a long time what the answer to this age-old wood question is, according to New York wildlife expert Richard Thomas, the question is quite debatable since groundhogs have no interest in throwing wood. Now, if we’re talking about throwing dirt, well, on a good burrowing day, groundhogs can throw around 35 cubic feet.
Yes, there will be a lot of fanfare this coming Wednesday for Punxsutawney Phil and some apprehension as to whether he or any of his other prognostic furballs with names like Buckeye Chuck from Ohio, Dunkirk Dave from New York, Chuckles IX from Connecticut or Chattanooga Chuck from Tennessee will play their shadows. You’ll notice I said cast a shadow, don’t see their shadows because the tradition has never really been about seeing the groundhog.
As arguably the most organized burrowing animal, you might not know that in October, groundhogs create a network of tunnels and dens in well-drained soil. Scientists tell us that each den has a specific purpose, including a den used for the bathroom of six- to 12-pound rodents.
As for the animal’s one-day fame, well, it goes all the way back to Germany, according to Parade Magazine writer Christine Copelan, who said in her article “The True Origin of Groundhog Day “that in Germany in ancient times halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the clergy celebrated Candlemas on February 2. It was on this day that candles were blessed and distributed to light up the rest of the winter.
For some reason, the celebration began to include a hedgehog as a way to predict the remaining length of winter. If Mr. HH cast a shadow, there would supposedly be six more weeks of winter.
In the mid-18th century, there was a large German migration to Pennsylvania, and the Candlemas tradition also appeared. Due to the abundance of marmots, the prognostic functions were entrusted to a new burrower.
After reporters from the Punxsutawney Spirit got involved and publicized, organizers held their first official Groundhog Day in 1887 on a wooded hill a few miles from Punxsutawney called Gobbler’s Knob. The newspaper’s editor, a groundhog hunter himself, proclaimed the newly dubbed “Phil” to be the country’s only legitimate meteorologist. You might be wondering if groundhog is something only ardent game eaters like those famous Beverly Hills Clampetts would enjoy. Well, there are those who describe the taste as quite pleasant, a combination of pork and chicken, which sounds very tasty for this carnivore.
Of course, most have seen the video of the annual event when Phil climbs out of that fake tree stump to take on this shadow-casting business, which begs the question, “Groundhogs emerge- are they really on February 2 of their own volition? ”
According to Penn State professor emeritus of biology Stam Zervanos, during the first week of February, groundhogs do indeed emerge after about four months underground to seek a mate, as the timing is vital for the species. Offspring should arrive in early April, so when food is most available in early May, juvenile groundhogs can take full advantage.
Now if you’re wondering about the accuracy of Punxy Phil’s predictions of whether or not winter will last six more weeks between the years 2011 and 2020, Phil’s work isn’t better than a draw randomly, at 50% according to what I could find. It’s not much better than my efforts years ago, in my young and stupid days, betting on professional football matches (and regularly losing) every weekend.
As for the fame given to Phil and his lesser-known friends, there was a spike after the 1993 film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Following this, visitors to Gobbler’s Knob have in some years exceeded 30,000.
While legend has it that the groundhog is immortal, of course, death never takes a vacation for living things. An old groundhog would not be much older than 8 years old. Of course, that’s a lot longer than Punxy Phil’s stardom. He and his sidekicks in various parts of the country, including my two favorite named marmots, General Beauregard Lee of Georgia and Pierre C. Shadeaux of Louisiana, have exactly 24 hours to bask in their lime fires.
And, for this guy who feels so much better emotionally and physically once he warms up, may the shadows that Phil and all those high school boys throw on Wednesday be so long!
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, freelance writer and editor, and author of two books. Contact him at [email protected]