If you already know what the title of this post means, you fall into one of three camps: One, you live somewhere near where I do; two, you have fond memories of cutting out paper groundhogs in elementary school; or three, you have, at some point in your life, been exposed to the 1993 philosophical comedy classic starring the incredibly talented Bill Murray, Groundhog Day. I am betting for the majority of you, it is the third. I know that is where I was introduced to not only that specific chubby little marmot, but groundhogs in general.
Where I grew up (Idaho) we did not have ground hogs, at least not the traditional weather-divining type of groundhogs. What we had were prairie dogs. For those who don’t know, prairie dogs are distinctly different from groundhogs; I mean, even apart from their lack of any meteorological relevance. They are much smaller, live in huge colonies, and, based entirely on my observation of the number of them that end up as roadkill, seem to have no fear of motor vehicles. I have seen the occasional groundhog street pizza since moving to Pennsylvania, but nowhere near the level of carnage that is encountered when a prairie dog colony happens to pop up near even a quiet residential roadway. When we were living in Colorado, I remember walking our dogs in the neighborhood, and when we came to the end of the road where there was a vacant lot on one side and an irrigation ditch on the other, there were so many little squished rodent corpses that if they were to rise up in some rodentine version of the Walking Dead, the neighborhood would have to be abandoned due to the sheer quantities of undead rodentia.
The fact that prairie dogs are communal (and communally stupid) makes them a poor substitute for the notoriously anti-social groundhogs of the east. Probably a better animal from the mountain west to compare to the groundhog would be the yellow-bellied marmot, more commonly called a rockchuck. With a similar body type (round) as well as a similar proclivity for solitude, is it any wonder that the marmot got a nickname that put it on the same level as the eastern woodchuck. Although I cannot think of a single western community that would be willing to trek to the top of a scree field in February to ask a whistle pig if it thought spring was going to come early. I guess they have always just left that to the Pennsylvania Germans.
Speaking of those wild and crazy Pennsylvania Dutch (not being Dutch at all of course, rather an English perversion of Deutsch, the German word for the German people), that celebration you remember from the Bill Murray masterpiece was completely understated. Punxsutawney endures upwards of 40,000 tourists (many of whom begin to arrive a week before the official festivities) for the annual meteorological prognostication. I am sure that Clymer H. Freas, the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, the newspaper responsible for every calendar printed in North America having an extra line of text taking up the already-too-small box for February 2nd, would be proud of the celebration that he has brought to his sleepy little hamlet.
I mentioned Clymer before because you have to give credit where credit is due, but the real reason anyone over ten years of age cares about, or even acknowledges a giant fuzzy rodent predicting the weather is squarely on the shoulders of Harold Ramis. Originally, his plan had been to cast Tom Hanks as Phil Connors. When Forrest Gump passed on the role, Ramis went to the next logical actor, Batman. However, Michael Keaton had to pass on the role as well so he could spend more time fighting crime in a rubber suit that wouldn’t let him turn his head; so, Ramis went deep into his back catalog of stars who he was also friends with and found Bill Murray. I personally cannot imagine the film without Murray in the staring roll, but I find it entertaining to try.
Groundhog Day the musical premiers on Broadway in April, but I can’t be alone in thinking they missed the boat by not previewing the show early to honor the quasi-holiday it is named for. I found a selection of the songs included in the show on YouTube, and I have to say it is pretty good. Anyone who knows of my love for the composer of the show, Tim Minchin, will of course take that with a grain of salt. Regardless of whether you are snowed in out west, or enjoying the much more temperate winter we have had in the east, you have to agree that it would have been incredibly entertaining to see the official Punxsutawney Phil pulled out of a box in the middle of a Broadway theater to make the official prediction for when we can expect spring this year. I guess there is always next year, and, who knows, maybe someone out west will start asking the marmots in September if we are going to have an early winter.
By: Tim Kiester with extra-super-special levels of appreciation to Laura Nelson for her late night formatting and corrections so that I could post this on the right day. Be sure to check out her blog; she is hilarious.