Hound’s Quill: Phil XIII and the prospect of spring

By Vesper Jacks

Groundhog Day 2020 is over. Rumor has it Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow despite all the television lights and journalists who suspiciously glowered at his burrow in the early morning hours of Sunday, February 2, waiting for him to pop up on Gobbler’s Knob. His prediction for 2020 is an early spring. The real question remains:  Have we had any type of winter? On December 27, the temperature in Luray was 67 degrees. This week temperatures are expected to be in the mid to upper fifties. Page County is experiencing a mild winter comparatively speaking. In January 2018, the Shenandoah River was frozen over for days and temperatures fell below zero. That is not the case this winter, and the school children have had few snow days. Tear. 

Now Phil is a cute, chubby little fellow, and according to a friend from Pennsylvania, (not to be confused with their old license plates that read: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania”), Phil is part of the original groundhog lineage of the original Punxsutawney Phil. The line is kept alive like royalty. And not one groundhog has moved to Canada due to the pressure of royal life.

Depending on geographical location, groundhogs are sometimes known as woodchucks. Regardless of name, they have a short lifespan, about five years. To quote E.B. White from Charlotte’s Web, “The life of a spider is a very uncertain thing.” As one who lives in rural Page County, the life of a groundhog is uncertain as well especially if his home is near U.S. 340. Imagine, if this critter was the original, he’d be 134 years old by now. 

The University of Michigan’s School of Zoology claims that the average groundhog held in captivity (depressing yet safer than farm life), can probably live for a decade. So if this is the case, there would be about 13 groundhogs in Phil’s lineage, all possessing similar strands of DNA. (Only Ancestry knows for sure.) And while DNA is science, a rodent playing shadow games is not. As Eddie Murphy said in the movie Norbit, “That’s not science, Rasputia.” 

Groundhog Day is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. And it’s folklore. According to Stormfax, predictions of Phil 1-13 have been correct only 39 percent of the time. Each year the tradition amounts to a three-day holiday that brings in tourist dollars. Sounds like a fun time that’s great for the economy. Just don’t take too much stock in the groundhog. This is one of the few years in recent memory that “Phil” has not seen his shadow. How can Phil XIII help but witness his shadow when there are television lights looming all over the place? He immediately scampers back down the burrow in this Pennsylvania borough.  Seems like a normal reaction to combat a hovering paparazzi.

    According to The Weather Channel, PETA wants to replace the tradition with an artificial intelligence robotic groundhog, citing concerns for the animal’s welfare. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, ancestors of those who founded the tradition, claim he is well cared for in the off-season. His home is apparently inspected annually by the Department of Agriculture according to The Washington Post, and he eats a healthy diet, although he appears somewhat rotund. (The camera puts on at least 10 pounds). He does live in captivity in a climate-maintained zoo. PETA claims that the robotic groundhog would be “cutting edge technology” that could predict the weather accurately. Would television crews, newspaper photographers, and tourists fill hotel rooms to look at a robotic groundhog? The answer is an emphatic no. So as usual, the “eagle” dictates. Who doesn’t want to see a bunch of old men in top hats hoisting a groundhog who has no true idea of his fame? Think of Rafiki presenting Simba to the animal masses beneath Pride Rock as Simba and Sarabi gloated with accomplishment. The concept is almost the same.

 While the practice itself is archaic, the local Pennsylvania economy does well from the exercise. Prognosticators across the country discuss Phil’s methodology for days. Recently, this conversation occurred between two acquaintances in Luray at an area fast food establishment. The two men were drinking coffee and discussing Phil XIII.

“Do you think he’s right?”

“Not sure. What do you think?”

“Look at that sky. There’s a ring around the moon. You know we might get snow.”

“Maybe, but he said spring was coming.”

“My joints ache. We are in for wet weather, snow probably. Better put a chestnut in my pocket to get rid of the pain.”

Locally, the weekly prediction is for rain, temps close to 60, and snow by the weekend. And yes, Phil did say spring was coming. Asking a robotic groundhog equipped with artificial intelligence might be more accurate long term. However, the conversation about Phil and his annual prognostication would diminish. And don’t we need more conversations and fewer gadgets?

Biography: Vesper Jacks has called Page County home for more than 30 years. A former reporter, Vesper works locally and has degrees in both communications and English. Vesper loves dogs, coffee and folklore.

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