Punxsutawney Phil sees a shadow

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Somewhere in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, far away in an improbable place called Punxsutawney, that celebrated sibyl of winter weather named Phil emerged this morning from his cozy, warm burrow. And saw his shadow. Uh oh. For followers of prognosticating groundhogs, also commonly known as woodchucks, that shadow portends six more weeks of winter. Spring only arrives early if Punxsutawney Phil does not see his shadow before hurrying back down below to finish his nap.

Groundhogs are also rarely and oddly called whistle-pigs or land-beavers. Whistle-pig I can understand. They do tend to sit up when alarmed by a whole host of marauders, from coyotes to eagles to dogs, and emit a high-pitched warning squeal for the benefit of others nearby. Land-beaver is truly odd. Well, you can almost see it, I guess. At least if you sit up yourself and squint at it from a long distance away. A very long distance. And think, ”Um... The darn thing must be sitting on its tail?”

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The Pennsylvania Germans—a.k.a. Pennsylvania Dutch, i.e. Deitsh or Deutsch—were the ones to first dub Phil a Grundsau: the groundhog. And they’re also to be thanked for the whole tradition of watching him and his kindred emerge from the ground on Candlemas. Back in Germany, they had done the extended winter weather forecast with badgers and bears for centuries. Not so easy in the New World where they were faced with a district shortage of badgers. Lots of black bears but I’m sure they gave that beast up after a few aborted holidays of watching it emerge from its den, all hungry and all.

No badgers, and the local bears not really working out? What’s a good German farmer to do? Ever practical, these German farmers, they took stock of the other available animals and selected
Marmota monax. The groundhog turned out to be an exceptionally suitable stand-in. It’s a large ground squirrel or marmot that engages in the prerequisite burrowing behavior needed for a good mid-winter forecast. Marmota monax is also quite common in northeastern and central North America. Off into large swaths of British Columbia and Alaska even. And it’s mostly a vegetarian, when it isn’t snacking on the occasional grub, slug or grasshopper. The fat little critter has a certain feisty reputation, but nowhere near that of the maybe groggy but hungry black bear emerging from its den. Marmota monax, welcome to Grundsaudaag.

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Groundhogs may be common but there aren’t too many resident in Manhattan. Not even in Yorkville. None in Carl Schurz Park that I’ve ever noticed. Central Park now and then but I think they’re chased off the Great Lawn and Sheep Meadow for good reason. It’s the burrowing thing. There is one in Fort Tryon Park that regularly tries to sap the walls of The Cloisters and drives the gardeners mad in the fruit orchard.

After a couple of weeks of colder than cold, it's fifty degrees fahrenheit today. I finally emerged from the apartment myself. Without having to put on three layers of down. The snow has receded faster than the tide. The camellias have unclenched their leaves. The bird pond's thawing. The bamboo leaves are a little burnt from the wind but they’ll leaf out again. How are the plants doing under their own thick winter duvets of pine straw? After two weeks barely out of the teens with single-digit lows? A bit too early to tell but no hint of frost below when I pushed in a few sticks! It’s the miracle of good mulch. In a few weeks I’ll be pulling back protective covers and cleaning up everything else that wilted or has floated in since the fall. I’m itching already. And, hey, the birds are already singing in that certain way that only means one thing’s coming.

I also didn’t see my shadow this morning. Yes, there is a spring soon. Sorry, Phil. Better luck next year.


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