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February 2, 2009



            One cool day last fall Clare discovered a dead groundhog. The animal was near our mailbox next to the four-lane road in front of our home. Though I am not a Crime Scene Investigator, the immediate cause of death apparently was a close encounter with a motorized vehicle of some sort. My best guess is that he was dealt a blow by a lumber truck.

            The plump fellow was flat on his back. His small feet were tucked into his body. His mouth was open, revealing sharp incisors.

            Using a shovel, I scooped the groundhog from the pavement and carried him to a large field next to the railroad tracks behind our house. The next day, I noticed several crows and two buzzards circling his carcass.

Reflecting on this drama, I wondered why our calendars include a day commemorating the groundhog. Why not have special days named for other critters? Don’t possums and skunks deserve days named for them? Why is only the groundhog afforded this honor?

On February 2nd the Christian holiday of Candlemas is observed. In the Roman Catholic tradition the day marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It was the day Christmas decorations were to be removed.

Down with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall

— Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

The name Candlemas refers to the practice of a priest blessing beeswax candles for use in churches and in homes for the year ahead.

Each year on February 2nd, the population of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, swells from about 6,000 to well over 10,000.  Visitors travel to the small town 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, not for the blessings of candles, but to celebrate Groundhog Day.

February 2nd is the midpoint of winter, falling halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. If, on Candlemas, the weather was cloudy and overcast, it was believed that warmer weather was ahead. If on that day, the weather was bright and sunny, cold weather could be expected for another six weeks. Hence the rhyme:

If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,

There’ll be two winters in the year.

Therefore, if a hibernating animal emerging from his den casts a shadow, winter would last another six weeks. If no shadow was seen, according to legend, spring would come early.

The question remains, why the groundhog? Surely other furry animals cast shadows. Why should the groundhog be singled out for a special day?  Maybe this is rodent discrimination.  What about gophers, or squirrels, or rats?

Maybe the groundhog was chosen because they are animal that enter a true hibernation period. Maybe it is because they have such a wide range from Alabama to Alaska. Maybe it is because they are so plentiful, reproducing in numbers similar to rabbits and rats. Indeed, farmers in some areas consider these marmots to be varmints.

Maybe the groundhog received this designation because, when frightened, he holds absolutely still, he hesitates, and then scurries into his burrow. This might explain the legend that the groundhog sees his shadow, is afraid, and returns quickly to his den.

The groundhog (Marmota monax) is known by several names.  The name woodchuck comes from an Algonquian name for the animal, wuchak. Woodchuck is the name made popular by a well-known tongue twister.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,

If a woodchuck would chuck wood?

A woodchuck would chuck all the wood

That a woodchuck would chuck,

If a woodchuck would chuck wood.

Another name for the groundhog is whistle pig. Outside their burrow these furry animals are alert. When driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I have often seen several of these critters standing erect on their hind feet, motionless, watching for danger. If alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony.

Of course, the one Clare found by our mailbox was also motionless. He apparently didn’t hear the warning.

Groundhogs usually live two to three years. Common predators include wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, bears, hawks, and owls. Lumber trucks are also a hazard.

Country folks sometimes eat groundhog for supper. Stews with plenty of onions, garlic, and hot peppers seem to be the preferred recipes.

The groundhog has found his niche. Doc Watson and Pete Seeger have memorialized him in folksongs. “Groundhog Day” is a 1993 comedy film directed by Harold Ramis, starring Bill Murray and Gaffney’s own Andie MacDowell.

On February 2nd, businessmen wearing top hats and tuxedoes, will coax Punxsutawney Phil, the most celebrated of all groundhogs, from his stump. Phil will whisper his prediction to a Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle representative. The translator will reveal the forecast to the national news media. Approximately 90% of the time, Phil sees his shadow. Phil’s ancestors started making predictions in 1887. Residents contend that their groundhog has never been wrong.

Meanwhile in Lilburn, Georgia, Phil’s southern cousin, General Beauregard Lee, will see his shadow or not. He will then give his prediction for the states below the Mason-Dixon Line.

What about the groundhog that died near our mailbox? Did he see his shadow?  I don’t know. I do know that he did not see the lumber truck that hit him.

On this Groundhog Day, may he rest in peace.

Kirk H. Neely

© February 2009





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