What You May Not Know About Groundhog Day

What You May Not Know About Groundhog Day

Really?  Groundhog Day again?  Didn’t they do that last year?

They did, and they’ve been doing it in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania since 1887, home of Punxsutawney Phil, the official meteorological seer,or at the very least, one of a small number of marmots licensed to predict the end of winter.  Marmot sounds impressive; ground squirrel a bit less formidable.  Our friend the groundhog (marmota monax) is also known as a woodchuck, of course, and, less frequently, as a whistle pig.

Although not a pig, this hefty rodent can weigh in at up to nine or ten pounds, which for a whistling rodent is plenty hefty.  Marmota Monax is not the largest rodent; that honor belongs to the capybara, a South American rodent closely related to the guinea pig in shape and general affect, but toting up to two hundred pounds of herbivorous contentment.  Your North American beaver is the next chunkiest rodent, a mere sylph in comparison to the capybara, but still an impressive creature weighing up to seventy pounds.

Traditional observation of Groundhog Day elevates the emergence of the prognosticating rodent as a means of determining the length of winter left to be endured.  If the groundhog sees its shadow, we’re in for a good six weeks of winter.  No shadow, spring is due in about six weeks.

So, putting the prediction to the test, the shadowy six weeks of winter from February 2nd takes us to the end of the second week of March; the unshadowed performance takes us to the middle of March.

Potatoes/potatoes, pajamas/pajamas. (Doesn’t really work in print, does it?)

There are a number of controversies surrounding the groundhog, starting with nomenclature.  Why would the same creature have six or seven names?  The mountain lion/cougar/catamount debate is largely regional; go trotting out to see what ravening herbivore has cleaned out the vegetable patch and you’ll be looking at the work of the groundhog, woodchuck, chuck, wood-shock, groundpig, whistle pig, thickwood badger, monax, moonack, weenusck, or red monk.  That’s bad enough, but its spawn may be called kits or alternatively, chucklings, which, I have to admit,  is a pretty nifty term.

These rodents are among the most effective burrowing creatures, moving as much as six hundred pounds of earth in digging out their meadow retreat.  These burrows are so soundly excavated that entire sections of field sink; the foundations of buildings have been literally undermined as the marmots slap out another burrow.  They are also a snippy rodent, rarely cohabitating in that beautifully crafted earthen home.  Despite their cheerful appearance, the groundhog/ woodchuck/whistle pig is aggressive, feisty, and generally not the sort of creature you want to engage in hand to curved claw combat.

I was prepared to leave the down-side of groundhog collecting with those observations.  The deliberations of the Linnean Society of New York in 1884, however, include a strongly worded cautionary description of the animal mounted in 1883 by those who hoped to place a bounty of ten cents on groundhogs in New Hampshire:

“Your committee finds that the woodchuck is absolutely destitute of any interesting qualities … Its body is thick and squatty, and its legs so short that its belly seems to almost touch the ground.  This is not a pleasing picture.”

On the other side, there are those who hold the … whatever … in high regard.  Its burrows are impressive, all the more commendable for including a nesting chamber, a nest that appears to have been crafted for the sweet, sweet rapture of woodchuck love, and a spy nest.  In addition, most burrows include a chamber set aside for excrement.  That same New Hampshire committee, chaired by the Hon. Charles R. Corning, and so, I suppose the Corning Committee, attempted to soften their assault on the appearance of the woodchuck by tossing a few compliments to the chunky ground squirrels:

“The woodchuck, despite its deformities both of mind and body, possesses some of the amenities of a higher civilization.  It cleans its face after the manner of the squirrels and licks its fur after the manner of the cat.”

Couldn’t leave it at that.

“Your committee is too wise, however, to be deceived by the purely superficial observance of better habits. .. The woodchuck is not only a nuisance, but a bore.”

I’d like to ask the Corning Committee just how squatty and boring a creature has to be in order to earn a ten-cent bounty.  I know several … no, I’ll leave that unsaid.

Most of us aware of Groundhog Day, if we are aware of it at all, because we have seen the movie thirty times since its release in 1993.  The project was written by Harold Ramis who also directed the film and by Danny Rubin, who wrote the short story from which the script was derived.  Rubin, the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, describes the inception of the story as an attempt to mess around with the question of how many lifetimes it would take for a man whose development was terminally arrested in adolescent self-centerdness to change, to evolve.  Not wanting to get into the issues surrounding the changing of history were a man to become immortal, Rubin came up with the repetition of a single day, in effect, as Rubin put it, changing eternity into a circle.

The loop has the effect of forcing the central character, Bill Murray as an insufferable TV weatherman, to look at himself as he indulges in hedonistic excess and wallows in suicidal despair.  Finally, in a moment of enlightenment, this noxious twit is transformed; he experiences something close to spiritual transcendence, becoming, in the end, a good guy.  I’ll take the message one step further, as we consider a future that has its shadowy features. Murray changes as his actions change. By acting like a good person, he becomes a good person.  To borrow a few Yiddish terms, he becomes a Mensch by performing mitzvahs.

Murray’s great in the role, maybe a bit better as rampaging jerk than as a romantic lead, but more than convincing enough to give substance to Rubin’s vision.

As we prepare to honor groundhogs large and small, squatty and trim, boring and effervescent, it’s not a bad day to chuck a thought back to the transformation of a human being.  As the film makes clear, it’s never too late to be better.


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