Pig Whistlin’ Dixie,
Or Spring Ahead?
By PETER GILMORE
Now here’s a news flash: There’s a lot of winter
left. Or not. Depending on what groundhog you ask.
"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does
anything about it," a wag once observed. The closest we seem to come
about doing something about atmospheric conditions is making rude comments
about the hapless TV meteorologist, or turning to older, shall we say
alternative, methods of prognostication.
Before modern science, computers and weather satellites, there
were various wise men, wise women, shamans and, in the case of the ancient
Celts, druids. Their attempts to tell the weather involved a lot of guesswork,
which is what many say about today’s forecasters.
For the Celts, the first of February marked the beginning of
spring. This sacred occasion was associated with the goddess Bridget, who
brought life back to earth after the dead months of winter. In the Scottish
Highlands, worshipers watched the emergence of a serpent from its lair on
Bridget’s day, regardless of snow. We don’t know if the snake was supposed
to see its shadow, however.
Coincidentally, with the coming of Christianity, the feast day
of St. Bridget came to be celebrated on the same day, February 1. The
following day, Candlemas, continued to be associated with weather
prognostication, at least in Scotland, where it was said:
If Candlemas be bright and clear
There’ll be two winters in the year.
GRUMPY WHEN WAKENED
European settlers in colonial Pennsylvania brought with them a
belief that critters newly stirred from hibernation could predict the weather.
In northern Pennsylvania, pioneers consulted black bears, although not too
often as they tended to be a tad too grumpy.
Groundhogs, a.k.a. woodchucks, a.k.a. whistle pigs, those
stout-bodied, underground-burrowing, garden-raiding members of the squirrel
family, took on the prognostication job.
On Feb. 2, according to legend, the groundhog sticks its head
out of its burrow. If it is a sunny day, the groundhog will see its shadow,
become frightened and return to its hole for more sleep. Winter will last six
more weeks. On the other hand, if it is a cloudy day, the groundhog will not
see its shadow. Hungry after a long winter’s sleep, the woodchuck will
wander off looking for grub. Spring will come early.
It’s not exactly the Weather Channel, but there are folks
who would argue you could do worse.
But what whistle pig to believe? Punxsutawney Phil,
denizen of Gobbler’s Knob in the hills of western Pennsylvania, already had
a significant claim to fame before the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.
But for many years Jefferson County’s meteorological rodent was just one of
many Pennsylvanian woodchucks with a claim to prophecy. Quarryville, in
eastern Pennsylvania, pressed its own Orphie as a serious rival to
Of course, many states have woodchucks, and more than a few
are believed to predict the weather. Atlanta, Georgia has its General
Beauregard Lee; Silver Point, Tenn. has the Tennessee Groundhog;
Dunkirk, N.Y. has Dunkirk Dave; also in western New York there’s Ridge
Lea Larry; the Big Apple boasts Staten Island Chuck; Ohio, not
surprisingly, has Buckeye Chuck, and New Iberia, La., Cajun
Groundhog. Unadilla, Neb. and French Creek, W. Va. also have woodchucks
wise in weather divination.
A major rival to Punxsutawney Phil has, er, emerged from a
hole in the ground in Sun Prairie, Wis., which, incidentally, claims the first
and best groundhog page on the World Wide Web. The backers of Jimmy the
Groundhog, Sun Prairie’s claim to meteorological fame, have been pushing
their rodent as the chief weather forecaster among the nation’s
And so what’s the forecast?
Early morning sun pierced the clouds above Gobbler’s Knob in
Punxsutawney, allowing Phil to see his shadow. And so we are supposed to be
facing six more weeks of winter.
But Jimmy didn’t see his shadow. The Wisconsin woodchuck is
forecasting an early spring.
To determine which woodchuck checked in with the right
forecast, we consulted one of the nation’s most eminent weather authorities
for the answer. It appears as though neither groundhog has the answer exactly
THE AUTHORITY SPEAKS
While February in Pennsylvania will be milder and rather wet,
the Old Farmer’s Almanac says also "The best chance for a
widespread snowstorm is in late March." Not quite, Phil.
Meanwhile, in the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes
region, the Almanac is forecasting a much colder than usual February;
"March will bring rapid changes, veering from very cold to unseasonably
mild spells and back again." Sorry, Jimmy.
And where does the Old Farmer’s Almanac get its
information? "Our weather forecasts are determined by the use of a secret
formula (devised in 1792 by the founder of this Almanac, Robert B. Thomas),
enhanced by the most scientific calculations based on solar activity."
But the editors add that "neither we nor anyone else has as yet gained
sufficient insight in to the mysteries of the universe to predict weather
long-range with anything resembling total accuracy."
So much for Phil, Jimmy and weather at 11.
UE News - 02/00