The first year I attended college in California my grandmother called to ask what my groundhog had predicted.
“Grandma, there are no groundhogs out here,” I told her.
“How will you know if spring is going to be early or late?” she asked in all seriousness. From then on, I could look forward to a call from grandma every February 2nd to announce the determination of the spring’s official prognosticator.
The groundhog was always spring lore in my family, but I never paid much attention to it until after returning east to farm and finding a huge groundhog hole freshly excavated inside one of the stalls of the barn on Groundhog Day. I didn’t care about his shadow, only the condition of my barn.
Groundhogs are big rodents—think a fifteen-pound short-tailed rat with a prominent overbite. That means they make big holes, actually burrows, which are a series of holes that can encompass an area of several square yards including chambers for hiding, hibernating, birthing, mating and excreting. Digging their burrows results in piles of dirt and rock around each hole. Running over one of these unexpectedly with farm equipment can be dangerous and damaging. Larger livestock, such as horses and cattle can injure themselves by stepping in holes, and smaller animals can become caught, unable to extricate themselves. And they can be hell on a septic system causing thousands of dollars in damage.
Primarily herbivores, very clean and perfectly sized for a crock pot, I took the time to hunt, clean and cook one. It had the consistency and taste of roast beef, but the aftertaste? My dining companion remarked that even a menthol cigarette couldn’t erase it. Despite their proliferation, there’s a reason they aren’t showing up on adventuresome locavore menus.
But why February 2nd?
Since my first encounter with my groundhog, I’ve kept track of burrows on the farm noting their activity on my annual calendar each year. Their appearance is always within the week on either side of that magical date which also happens to be the half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
The belief that if the groundhog sees his shadow on this day there will be six more weeks of winter and if not spring will come early traces its roots to Greek and Roman festivals marking the crossroads between winter and spring, groundhog lore gained footing in northern Europe as farmers noted the appearance of hibernators, such as badgers and hedgehogs, as signs of impending spring which they used as a guide for planting crops.
With the profusion of German immigrants, including my ancestors, to the central Pennsylvania region in early America, it’s easy to see how the groundhog became their harbinger of spring. However, they are not emerging from their winter hibernation to be the center of attention to a bunch of men in tuxedoes and top hats watching for signs of a shadow. Actually, the groundhog’s awakening has nothing to do with the weather. It’s all about…SEX.
Think of it as Valentine’s Day for hibernators. It’s not just the groundhogs plowing through the bean field. With red foxes, the vixens are screaming for the tods to come hither—a frightful noise. The next sign, even more reliable than the groundhog is the skunk. A whiff of the familiar musk is a sure bet the days are growing longer and warmer.
As society has urbanized, our folklore is often lost in context, but in an agrarian setting makes perfect sense. I’ve been watching my groundhog holes (there’s a big one under my porch) and so far, I haven’t seen any action. If I were a groundhog, I would have stayed in bed on February 2nd this year, too! Although famous Phil of Punxsutawney is calling for an early spring, I think I’m going to side with mine this year.