Post by Joanna on Feb 1, 2017 22:47:27 GMT -5
The Groundhog: Weather Prognosticator
DELTAVILLE, Va. – What’s up with the groundhog anyway? How the heck did he become the nation’s premier weather forecaster? Who decided he was scared of his own shadow? How do we even know this squinty-eyed member of the rodent family can even see his own shadow? As we have several families of the furry creatures (also known as woodchucks, whistle-pigs and land beavers) living amidst the gardens and arbors of Holly Point Nature Park in Deltaville, I really wanted to know.
To get the purely scientific stuff out of the way, the mostly herbivorous groundhog is a rodent of the family sciuridae, which belongs in the group of large land squirrels called marmots. They are widely spread through the U.S. from Georgia north past the Canadian border. The name “whistle-pig” comes from a high-pitched whistle they use to warn the rest of the colony of danger.
Now to the fun stuff! The earliest documented American reference to the “legend” that has become “Groundhog Day” comes from a diary entry made February 4, 1841, by Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, storekeeper James Morris, who wrote: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow, he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” The German immigrants referred to here, with all their legends and traditions became the group now known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” This is not because of any actual Dutch ancestry, but rather a misunderstanding and corruption of the German word “Deutsch,” which means literally “German.” Punxsutawney is an “Americanization” of the Delaware Indian word “ponksaduteney," meaning: “the town of the sandflies.”
To get us, historically, to this point in 1841 we have to cut on the “way back” machine 12,000 years and go all the way back to 10,000 BC to a Neolithic, Celtic and Gaelic tradition to a festival known as Imbolc (or Imbolg), marking the beginning of spring. Imbolc was considered a propitious time for weather prognostication as hibernating groundhogs, badgers and snakes began to come out of their burrows. In some cultures, the role of the groundhog was relegated to bears. Groundhogs, sacred to the local Delaware Indians, were plentiful in Colonial Pennsylvania. Groundhogs also are a lot cuddlier than badgers, bears and snakes. As the dates of pagan festivals and rituals were assumed by Christianity, February 2 became Candlemas Day, celebrating the 40 days after the birth of Christ and the day of His presentation in the temple.
As to the current American tradition, “Punxsutawney Phil” and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, are the true originals. The first American celebration of this unusual holiday and naming of the groundhog was recorded in The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper February 2, 1886, as “Punxsutawney Phil: Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” and Punxsutawney was dubbed “The Weather Capital of the World.”
In case you’re wondering, the “peerless prognosticator” has been right only 37% of the time. So from where does the tradition of the groundhog being a “scaredy-cat” and afraid of his own shadow come? Pure observation of animal behavior. The groundhog is a very wary animal. All of us have seen groundhogs standing above their holes, stock still and, using their keen vision, alert to movement and predators in their surroundings. These “sentinels” are the early warning system for groundhogs as they go about their business. Along with the whistle sound, the groundhog also uses low barks and the gnashing of teeth as warning sounds. One warning and the groundhogs disappear! When confronted, they will always retreat into their burrows, showing aggression only when trapped. Not only do groundhogs post sentinels, but dig their burrows with at least five to six entrances and exits to ensure many avenues of escape.
So, now we know lots of things about the groundhog and his rise to America’s weather forecaster. We also know he is about as accurate as the weathermen (and women) we know and watch on TV.
If you want to see the groundhog in his natural habitat, Deltaville Maritime Museum and Holly Point Nature Park have many families of the multi-named weather prognosticators living among and in its fields, gardens and arbors. Because of their wary nature, it requires patience and quiet, but feel free to come on down, grab a bench (the Stohl Wildflower Pavilion is the best spot), sit a spell and enjoy. The museum and park are located at 287 Jackson Creek Road, and the park is open from dawn to dusk daily at no charge.
Source: Bill Powell, The Southside Sentinel, February 1, 2017.
See also: "Imbolc, a Gaelic Festival": whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/3218/imbolc-gaelic-festival
"Imbolc Traditions and Food": whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/4973/imbolc-traditions-foods