EULOGY FOR A GROUNDHOG
One cool day in the early fall Clare discovered a dead groundhog. The animal was lying 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 was apparently a close encounter with a motorized vehicle of some sort. My best guess is that he was dealt a blow by a truck hauling petroleum products.
The plump fellow was flat on his back, his small feet tucked into his body.
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 special day, February 2, commemorating the groundhog. Why not have special days named for other critters subject to becoming road kill victims? Don’t possums and skunks also deserve days named for them? What about deer whose casualty rate is certainly on the increase? What about cur dogs and feral cats that come to a no-good end on a paved strip of asphalt? Why has the groundhog been the only creature 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 on this day that Christmas decorations were to be removed. Consider these four lines from “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve,” by Robert Herrick (1591–1674):
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:
The name Candlemas refers to a priest’s practice of blessing beeswax candles for use in churches and homes during the coming year.
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, however, the sky was bright and sunny on that day, 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?
Each year on February 2nd, the population of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, swells from 6,000 or so to well over 10,000. Visitors travel to the small town sixty-five miles northeast of Pittsburgh, not for the blessing of candles, but for the celebration of Groundhog Day.
Maybe the groundhog was chosen because these animals enter a true hibernation period. Maybe it is because they have such a wide range of habitation – from Alabama to Alaska. Maybe it was chosen 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, hesitates, and then scurries into his burrow. This might explain the legend that the groundhog sees his shadow, becomes afraid, and returns quickly to his den.
The groundhog (Marmota monax) is known by several names. The name woodchuck, which comes from an Algonquian name for the animal, wuchak, has been 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 give 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. Big 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. Bill Murray and Gaffney’s own Andie MacDowell starred in “Groundhog Day,” a 1993 comedy film directed by Harold Ramis.
On February 2nd, businessmen, wearing top hats and tuxedos, 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, and 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 also emerge to 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 though that he did not see the eighteen-wheel truck that hit him.
On this Groundhog Day, may he rest in peace.