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Deconstructing Punxsutawney Phil

Groundhog Day 2004: a charmingly offbeat tradition, or a ritualized form of animal cruelty? You be the judge. 

 

Consider it from Punxsutawney Phil's point of view. Each year for much of the night of Feb. 1, his otherwise quiet lair is bombarded with the sound of rock music and fireworks. It's as if he were some furry-footed Manuel Noriega, trying to hide in a Vatican embassy.

 

Finally, on the morning of Feb. 2 a top-hatted official knocks on the stump above Phil's den, prompting him to leap out of his hole (probably to see why it got so quiet all the sudden). He looks around at the TV cameras, the thousands of onlookers. He figures, "To hell with this," and turns back toward his burrow.

 

And for his pains, he is booed by countless strangers.

 

That's what happened this Feb. 2, when Phil supposedly saw his shadow and retreated to his hole, promising six more weeks of winter and prompting boos from the crowd. Finally, Groundhog Day officials -- there are such things, apparently -- reminded the audience that groundhogs shouldn't be blamed for their predictions.

 

Groundhog Day is a tradition that dates back more than a century at least. (In the 19th century, rural farmers also relied on such weather predictors as goose bones, frogs, toads, and a young Joe DiNardo.) But as Christopher R. Davis wrote in a fascinating 1985 article on Groundhog Day in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, farmers in those days didn't necessarily want an early end to winter.

 

An early thaw, after all, could mean a lack of snowmelt and potential drought come springtime. Hence the paradox at the heart of Groundhog Day: Since the groundhog is supposed to be frightened by his shadow, the sunnier the weather, the more likely that Phil will predict more snow. But a century ago, six more weeks of winter might have been a sunny forecast.

 

At some point, it seems, nature stopped being something to depend on, and became something that existed for our convenience. The natural cycle of birth, death and rebirth became just one more hassle during our morning commute, like that long traffic signal at the intersection with Route 51. Our attitudes about nature have never been the same: People have gone from doubting the possibility of global warming to hoping for it. And now, it seems, blaming Phil when it doesn't take hold quickly enough.

 

Phil is used to this kind of treatment. As Davis writes in his article, "Totemism and Civic Boosterism in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania," in the early 1900s, local boosters tried to use Groundhog Day as a marketing scam to advertise Punxsutawney to industries who might want to open new facilities.

 

The holiday first achieved some local prominence at the turn of the century, thanks to some editorial cartoons in Pittsburgh papers and the opening of a new rail line between Punxsutawney and Pittsburgh. Davis writes that local boosters and the area's newspaper, the Punxsutawney Spirit, tried to capitalize on Groundhog Day's fame "by proclaiming itself ‘The Weather Capital of the World,' and even tried to use its reputation for ‘perfect groundhog weather' in its campaign to lure prospective business." In other words, Phil wasn't a weather predictor so much as a rainmaker.

 

Davis notes the dichotomy: City leaders were trying to use a symbol of the town's rural heritage to transform it into a cutting-edge metropolis. But hey, it's cheaper than building a new stadium for a football team named after a dead industry.

 

But if small mammals could attract business, Thurmond, West Virginia would be the industrial capital of the world. Punxsutawney Phil never attracted much industry; instead he became the industry. Thanks to his efforts, Punxsutawney became a rural-entertainment Mecca, a place in the middle of nowhere to go and have a good time, maybe get a little drunk. Like Branson, Missouri. Or Penn State University.

 

As a reporter, I sympathize with Phil when crowds get unruly. We messengers often get shot for what we report, as meteorologists know better than anyone. Of all the news professionals, weather forecasters are the most likely to be held personally responsible for what they report. ("What kind of weather are you bringing us next week, Julie?" the jocular anchorman might ask. No weather forecaster ever replies, "Mild with seasonal precipitation, David. What kind of drive-by shootings and water-main breaks are you visiting upon your neighbors?")

 

In fact, Davis's article reports that on one occasion about a century ago, the good citizens of Punxsutawney sent a groundhog to Frank Ridgway, then Pittsburgh's official government meteorologist. This was the meteorological equivalent of waking up with a horse's head in bed next to you, it seems: Ridgway was told that the groundhog should be stuffed and mounted "as a reminder of the fate that awaits the forecaster who makes a mistake in his predictions," reported the Punxsutawney Spirit.

 

Phil doesn't just content himself with observations on the weather any more, however. Each year, Phil "writes" a little ditty -- a bit of prairie-doggerel, if you will -- to announce his forecast, read by one of the officials presiding over the event. This year, Phil also offered up a political commentary on current events: "I'm glad I live in this luxurious burrow on the knob, and not in a dirty, smelly spider hole like a slob," Phil "said."

 

Never mind the tortured rhyme scheme: Somebody get this varmint a seat on Crossfire. He could fill in for the raccoon-eyed William Buckley and no one would notice the difference. Jingoism and pointless prognostication fills up most of the airtime on cable news anyway. Imagine Phil on the McLaughlin Group arguing over whether Saddam was afraid of his own shadow, and whether that means six more weeks of attacks on U.S. troops and hapless Iraqi civilians. (So far, the answer is apparently yes.)

 

The job would certainly be a lot easier. Predicting who'll be the next president is harmless fun: Just like being an economic-development booster -- or a professional football team -- you're going to draw a hefty paycheck regardless of whether you get results. But predicting the weather? That's a thankless job.

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