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A Conversation About: Ground Hogs

Written By The Mountain Eagle on 2/2/24 | 2/2/24

By Jean Thomas

Of course I want to talk about Ground Hogs, also known as woodchucks, whistle pigs or marmots. February 2 is Ground Hog Day and we are inundated with images of a bunch of grown men in nineteenth century finery annoying a rodent. I’d say, “Only in America,” but lots of other countries have equally demented traditions. I’m interested in ground hogs because, as a gardener, I find them to be worthy opponents. Did you know that they can climb as well as they can dig? And their dens are masterpieces of architecture with a tunnel network worthy of a video game design. They’re voracious eaters and will “clean their plate,” that is… they will eat everything to the ground. They don’t take polite tastes like many other of our wild neighbors at the snack bar.                                                                                                          But how come we even have a holiday for a rodent? I have to give credit to those brilliant public relations geniuses in Gobbler’s Knob, PA. It all started with the German settlers in Pennsylvania who brought a religious tradition to the New World called Candlemas Day, which celebrated the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the equinox. Now this is also associated with pagan celebrations at the same time that got all mingled in. A lot of religious ideas, including the pagan, coordinate with solar and lunar observations. Somehow, in the early 1800s, a hedgehog got added into the legends and, since we have no native hedgehogs on this side of the Atlantic, brer ground hog was drafted as a substitute. Some locals decided to make a festival and invent yet another legend about the woodchuck seeing its shadow when it woke up from its hibernation(or was rudely awakened). By 1897 the festivities were moved to Punxatawney PA and the woodchuck was named Phil. Apparently the second of February is also traditionally a slow news day, and here we all are. One of the few byproducts I approve of is the Bill Murray movie titles, “Groundhog Day.” I don’t know why, but it amuses me.                                                All right, for the last time, I’ll tell you again (maybe you want to pin a copy of this to the fridge): if the little guy sees his shadow we will have six more weeks of winter and if he doesn’t there will be an early spring. For a much more detailed discussion of this whole issue, and other rodent rumors, listen to the podcast episode of Nature Calls, Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Here’s the link… and you can listen on any podcast platform (it is episode 2): https://ccecolumbiagreene.org/gardening/nature-calls-conversations-from-the-hudson-valley/episode-two-groundhogs-and-other-furry-wildlife.                               If you prefer less outdoorsy stuff, maybe next year we’ll talk about St. Bridget. St. Bridget’s Day is the first of February, and celebrated for a similar reason: the midpoint between the shortest day of the year and the spring solstice. There is an Irish goddess called Bridget, whose legends overlap with the saint. Saint Bridget was an abbess  who died 1500 years ago and is considered the matron saint of Ireland. The pagan celebration of the day is called Imbolc. Let me know if you want to hear more about her. Next month we’ll think about St Partick’s Day, which is also an important gardening date.

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