Sunday, February 1, 2015

Of myths and marmots: Groundhog Day

Monday is all about celebrating an overgrown ground squirrel's survival of winter.

It's Groundhog Day, a triumph of spring over winter, just as the contemporaneous Candlemas Day celebrates the victory of light over darkness.

February 2 is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The day is noticeably longer than it was on the solstice. Likewise, Candlemas Day, a European tradition, is the day when a year's supply of candles is blessed. Hence light over darkness.
It may not seem a big deal today when the flick of a switch gives us all the light we need.
But before electricity, the halfway point through winter was worth celebrating. Longer days and a new growing season are coming.

In Europe, the custom was to predict the arrival of spring by watching for a hedgehog's shadow on Feb. 2. Since North America has no hedgehogs, early Americans adopted as a substitute harbinger the groundhog, also known as the woodchuck, lowland marmot and whistle pig. Apparently settlers were unaware most groundhogs are still hibernating in early February.

What I've never understood is why bright sunshine means six more weeks of winter, and no shadow means an early spring. Of course, the groundhog's ability to forecast the arrival of spring is hogwash.

But groundhogs themselves are worth celebrating. They've survived a long winter's sleep and are gaunt and hungry. They search almost immediately for a mate and forage furiously for the next eight or nine months. Breeding so early gives the next generation of groundhogs the head start needed to fatten up for the following winter.

Scott Shalaway:,

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