In attempting to explain why thousands of people visit a wooded hollow in western Pennsylvania every Feb. 2 to watch a groundhog predict the weather — a discipline not typically associated with large rodents — an academic journal article in 1985 began by laying out pertinent questions.
(1) “Why has such sentience been attributed to the groundhog?”
(2) “How did Punxsutawney come to identify itself with the groundhog?”
(3) “And what has this identification to do with local enterprise?”
As someone who once trekked through the frozen woods to Gobbler’s Knob to witness this 131-year-old meteorological baloney, I will confess that the questions I asked myself then were not as literate or dignified as the ones posed in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 68, No. 2.
Mine were more like, “WTF.”
Anyway, let’s try to understand this lunacy together.
Why has such sentience been attributed to the groundhog?
As the article and other anthropological research explains, humans have been ascribing weather prediction abilities to animals for some time — like forever.
Cows are said to lay down when bad weather is approaching. (Me, too.) Goats supposedly get really excited when a low pressure front moves in. If your garden has bees, and then suddenly your garden doesn’t have bees, rain is a comin’.
And then there’s the groundhog.
On Friday morning, Phil was yanked from his burrow by men in suits and top hats to make his forecast via his shadow. After seeing it, Phil’s handlers announced amid much hoopla that there will be six more weeks of winter.
As the historical article makes clear, this literally makes no sense:
The exceptional feature about the groundhog in this regard is that its meaningful behavior occurs on but a single day. Also anomalous is that groundhogs do not normally come out of hibernation until late March or April, although the formula calls for an early February awakening. One is tempted to conclude from these facts alone that we are dealing less with a natural sign in the case of the groundhog and more with a cultural symbol. Ultimately, we may not be dealing with the groundhog at all.
How did Punxsutawney come to identify itself with the groundhog?
The whole thing apparently started with meat. And a picnic.
In the late 1800s, in Pennsylvania, the historical journal explained that:
… groundhogs were plentiful. They were shot at or trapped by farmers who saw them as pests, and by others practicing their marksmanship. The carcasses often ended up as food for dogs or scavengers. In the nineteenth century, however, some esoteric connoisseurs in the vicinity of Punxsutawney were serving groundhog to visitors as a special local dish. Dinner guests were reportedly pleased at how tender the marmot meat was when properly prepared, tasting like a cross between pork and chicken. Around 1889, groundhog meat was served at a banquet at the Punxsutawney Elks lodge. Several Elks and others then began gathering one day each year in late summer on Miller Stoops’s farm on Canoe Ridge south of town to capture and feast on groundhog. This group became the nucleus of the Groundhog Club, and was recognized as such at least by 1899 by some accounts.
And what has this identification to do with local enterprise?
A lot. Mostly to sell newspapers. You read that right.
Punxsutawney Phil is meteorological fake news.
Here’s how the National Centers for Environmental Information explains it, with tact:
The trail of Phil’s history leads back to Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper. Inspired by a group of local groundhog hunters — whom he would dub the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club — Freas declared Phil as America’s official forecasting groundhog in 1887. As he continued to embellish the groundhog’s story year after year, other newspapers picked it up, and soon everyone looked to Punxsutawney Phil for the prediction of when spring would return to the country.
Ahem: The other newspapers did not include The Washington Post.
This paper has never much cared for Punxsutawney or its famous rodent.
Yeah, let’s see.
Whatever you say, rodent.
Read more Retropolis:
‘A carnival of death’ on New York’s streets: The newspaper hoax that panicked a city