Groundhog daze

Groundhog                                                       Urville Djasim/Flickr

Groundhog                                                       Urville Djasim/Flickr

I was astonished to learn that upwards of 40,000 people typically gather at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., to watch old Phil the groundhog make his annual prognostications about the duration of winter. To awaken the sleeping critter, the crowd chants “Phil! Phil! Phil!”

Imagine that as your wake-up call. 

I’d guess the local Chamber of Commerce is laughing up its tuxedo-clad sleeves at the prospect of drawing all those gullible souls to an obscure Pennsylvania hamlet in the dead of winter – for an event scheduled at 7:25 in the morning. There’s no more reason to believe in Phil’s predictions than there is to posit that the Pennsylvania “Dutch,” another of the state’s tourist icons, were originally from the Netherlands. (This is merely a corruption of “Deutsch,” as in Deutschland, i.e. Germany.)

But all publicity -- and all tourist dollars -- are good, I suppose, even if the event is the rude awakening of a put-upon woodchuck. There’s even a Punxsutawney Groundhog Club that sponsors associated events, including special receptions on the day and a flashy Groundhog Ball.

True hibernators, groundhogs spend the winter in a deep, death-like torpor, slowing their heart rate from 80 to four beats per minute and their internal temperature from 98 degrees to as low as 38. Since they spend up to eight months of the year in this semi-frozen state, it might actually be more the norm in a groundhog’s life than their active, incessant eating phase — the bane of gardeners everywhere.

They don’t ordinarily make an appearance above ground until March, when vegetation begins to sprout. In the normal cycle of hibernation the chuck rouses himself every two weeks or so to shuffle around its underground burrow and maybe make a short trip to its bathroom tunnel. But after a brief time awake, the critter sinks back into hibernation.

As spring approaches, groundhogs do poke their heads out of the burrow to check outdoor temperatures, which cannot be inferred from the cozy warmth of their underground homes. Until temperatures warm sufficiently to prompt plant growth, there is no real reason for the chuck to emerge.

Badger                                                       sinewy polyp/Flickr

Badger                                                       sinewy polyp/Flickr

As with most myths, there is a tiny germ of distorted fact in Groundhog Day. In the 18th century, Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought their observance of Candlemas Day to the New World. A Christian holiday celebrated 40 days after Christmas on Feb. 2, it occurs halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

Tradition has it that this is an auspicious time to consider predictions about the duration of cold weather, but tradition also has it that the animal barometer was a badger, a ferocious, ill-tempered member of the weasel family who may den up in winter to avoid bitter weather, but is not a hibernator. This animal remains active through the winter, his shadow often available.

Unfortunately, badgers don’t generally live in the East. Their range chiefly stretches from the Midwest and Great Lakes west, and northward through the lower Canadian provinces. Since they had no badgers, the early settlers seized on the next best (but biologically different) thing, the relatively mild-mannered groundhog.

I think it would be an entirely more exciting affair if Punxsutawney returned to the source and imported a badger for its midwinter celebration. Instead of the pudgy, dopey, artificially awakened groundhog, “whispering” in the ear of his formally dressed zoo handler, we could have a real show.

Badgers when disturbed respond with a ferocious display of hissing and growling, bearing their vicious teeth and brandishing their fearsome, 2-inch claws. Known for their exceptional strength and courage, they can easily kill animals several times their size. Handlers would be well advised to keep a safe distance.

Called “nature’s steam shovel,” badgers are also known for their prodigious ability to rip into the dirt, hurling a shower of clods behind them with their webbed feet. They can disappear out of sight beneath the ground in two New York minutes. Let’s see the TV film crews get a sound bite out of that. It could give Candlemas Day a whole new dimension.