Monday, February 2, 2009
HAPPY GROUNDHOG DAY!
Today is Groundhog Day, which means all across the land, reporters for radio, television, newspaper, and the Internet will be waiting with bated breath, cameras poised, for the weather prognostication of these supposedly prescient furry rodents. According to folklore, if the awakened groundhog sees his shadow today, there’ll be six more weeks of winter; if not, spring is right around the corner. Groundhog Day is simply the North American version of a long line of animals thought to be able to predict the weather—everything from bears to otters, wolves to hedgehogs. Many prophet animals were hibernators. The theory went that if you watched one of these sleeping critters awaken on Candlemas Day, whether they then chose to remain awake or decided to go back to sleep would determine winter’s duration. Various Europeans, including both English and Germans, favored badgers for their seasonal foretelling. When the Pennsylvania Dutch came to the U.S. in the mid-1700s, they brought their custom of animal-based weather forecasting along. Since badgers were not at all common thereabouts, the settlers switched allegiance to the ubiquitous groundhog—also called a woodchuck—which might be mistaken for a badger to the same extent a horse might be mistaken for a moose. But then, most of our early colonists were always a bit shaky when it came to animal identification. In addition to their mistake in telling a groundhog from a badger, they also muddled up the fact the animal was supposed to awaken on its own, and that it was whether or no it choose to stay awake—not seeing its own shadow—that determined winter's duration. The photo above shows the main entry—the front door—of my own resident groundhog’s den. The burrow opening is located at the right side of a big Osage orange tree’s base, to the left of the exposed portion of root. You don’t see it? Well, that’s because it is filled in and covered over with ice and snow. The other three den entrances connecting the tunnel complex are located nearby on the same hillside, and while smaller and always less conspicuous, are now equally invisible beneath winter’s icy mantle. Groundhogs are almost total vegetarians. They eat grasses, leaves, shoots, stalks, certain wildflowers, and almost any plant from the garden. Since winter in a Great Lakes State typically doesn’t offer much in the way of handy eats, groundhogs cope with the season by hibernating. I have no doubt that somewhere on the hillside within a dozen feet of the big Osage orange tree and 5-8 feet underground, in a snug, grass-lined chamber, my rotund resident groundhog is snoozing away—blissfully unaware that he’s failing his annual duties. Unfortunately, a few of his brethren won’t be so lucky, because the news media will insist on a photo op for their stories. Thus groundhogs residing in nature museums, zoos, schools, and kept as pets (legally or otherwise) will be prodded awake, hauled out into the cold, drowsy, confused, and doubtless a bit cranky, and made to participate in this bit of seasonal silliness before being allowed to return to their warm beds. Personally, I hope these displaced groundhogs, each and every, one manage to sink an incisor into the hand of their inconsiderate keepers. And just in case you’re wondering…the sun is shining bright here this morning. Those bright-eyed bushy-tailed rodents awake of their own volition (squirrels) are casting shadows to beat the band. Looks like winter will be lingering hereabouts a while longer. But who am I (sigh) to buck tradition—silly or otherwise. Therefore…Happy Groundhog Day!