January 31, 2012

The Problem With Groundhog Day

On Thursday of this week - February 2 - you will hear on the radio or see on television that Punxsutawney Phil climbed out of his cage and either did or did not see his shadow which means there either will or will not be six more weeks of winter.  Amazingly, this will be the 126th year in a row that the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has re-enacted this bit of municipal schmaltz.  Even more amazing, Punxsutawney is just one of nearly a hundred towns in the U.S. and Canada that will hold such early morning stunts.

Before I go further, let me first say that I think the film, Groundhog Day, is one of the most original stories every told by the American cinema.  For that 1993 film, Bill Murray can be forgiven all manner of duds (The Royal Tennenbaums, Charlie’s Angels) and Andie MacDowell will forever remain in my mind as one of the sweetest actresses to grace the screen.

Know thy enemy... many names, same varmit
But, to the best of my knowledge, we do not celebrate Benedict Arnold’s birthday in this country (I cannot speak for Canada), not do we set aside a day to honor, say, the Japanese Beetle.  Why on earth do we have a day that commemorates a rodent whose sole purpose in life, I fervently believe, is to destroy vegetable gardens?

To begin with, ‘groundhog’ is simply one of the many aliases for a nemesis we know well in New England – the woodchuck.  Elsewhere in the country, this creature has set up shop using the monikers ‘whistle-pig’, ‘land-beaver’ and ‘marmot’.  The woodchuck currently sleeping in a burrow just outside your garden likely has ID cards from many states, including one issued by the Algonquins for its original name, wuchak.

Woodchucks gravitate to gardens the way Red Sox fans seek out Fenway Park.  As the Cornell Extension Service rather dryly states it, Woodchucks can become a nuisance when their feeding and burrowing habits conflict with human interests. They frequently damage vegetable and flower gardens, agricultural crops, orchards, nurseries, and areas around buildings. Damage to crops can be costly…”

Last year, my wife, Betty, designed a massive, 6,000-square-foot Chef’s Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Prior to its new incarnation, it was the Society's Vegetable Trial Garden, and it was a veritable Sunday brunch at Cafe Fleuri for the indigenous Elm Bank woodchuck population.  In 2010, the site's last year as a trial garden, I helped Gardens Curator David Fiske pull plastic for and plant a large site for a new hybrid watermelon Mass Hort had been asked to evaluate.  As the melons ripened, woodchucks would choose several to sample, leaving behind well-gnawed produce.  On the day before the melons were to be harvested, the Groundhog Gourmet Society invaded en masse and functionally destroyed the plot, not even leaving the seeds behind.  The new garden incorporates a fence that goes down a full foot into the soil.

I might feel differently about Groundhog Day if I suspected that the rodent involved actually had some prognostication ability. However, no less an authority than the Canadian Encyclopedia, using data from 13 cities gathered over a 30 to 40-year span, puts the prediction success level at just 37%.  In other words, you can do better flipping a coin.

So, on Thursday, please excuse me if I’m not glued to the live, 7:20 a.m. webcast from Pennsylvania.  Looking out at my green lawn this year, I can’t help but feel that winter was over before it began.


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  2. An interesting and informative article as always, Neal. But I'm sad to learn our little Woodrow J. Woodchuck isn't as harmless as he looks! Maybe we'll have to urge Woodrow to move on this spring before he discovers Chris' new veggie garden.