The Origins of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day in PA

Ground Zero For Groundhog’s Day

Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is ground zero for Groundhog’s Day in America, for this is where the legendary Punxsutawney Phil makes his annual appearance and weather prediction for the next six weeks. According to Wikipedia, this strange conglomeration of Roman letters is used to express  a Delaware Indian phrase, which can be translated to mean “town of the sandflies”.

Situated south of Interstae 80, not too far from the town of State College, this small coal-mining, settlement of 6,000 people attracts a large crowd of visitors every February 2. The reason for this gathering is a groundhog named Punxsatawney Phil, who will faithfully reveal his prediction come rain or shine. This year 2013, Punxsatawney Phil did not see his shadow and so residents of western Pennsylvania are expecting an early end to winter.

Winter scene with horses
Winter scene with horses

Origin of Groundhog’s Day

Groundhog Day in America is an unusual event to say the least, especially if you consider the inverse relationship of the weather on Feb. 2  and the actual arrival of warmer spring weather. However, like most holidays, Groundhog Day is not pure fiction, but actually has its origins across the Atlantic in western Europe.

In many Christian countries, there is a mid-winter celebration called Candlemas, which just happens to occur at the mid point of winter, the second day of February.  In fact, in Germany, legend states that it is the lowly hedgehog, which emerges from hibernation at mid-winter and either sees his shadow or he does not. It should also be noted that for many residents of northern Europe, having survived the first half of winter is definitely a time for celebration. The Christian church has capitalized on this popular holiday by encouraging parishioners to  come to worship and light candles to mark the passing of the coldest season.

groundhog day
Movie Poster For Groundhog Day

The Holiday Immortalized

Though now 20 years old, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell has become a cult classic among movie buffs. When it was first released, this film received good reviews, but over the last twenty years the movie seems to have gained popularity, often cited as one of the most popular comedies of all time. Strangely enough the notoriety of Punxsutawney Phil has followed a similar path.

The Zen of Snowshoeing

Winter Image by Koppdelaney
Winter image by H. Koppdelaney

Zen and Winter Walking

I hope you like this photographic image of the serene beauty of winter. It was not put together by me, but instead the surreal landscape comes from the image bank of Hartwick Koppdelaney, who most graciously allows general non-commercial use of his photographic artwork. Even though the figure in this picture is not wearing snowshoes and the image is a composite of several pictures, the snowy scene accurately conveys the solitude and beauty of snowshoeing.

Road-Into-The-Wilderness
Snow-covered road leading into the Wheeler Peak wildernesss in New Mexico, photo by author

Road to A Wilderness Trailhead

Last week on a free day, I grabbed a pair of aluminum frame snowshoes (hardly anybody makes wooden shoes anymore), took a shuttle bus to the Taos Ski Valley and followed this snow-covered road to the Williams Lake trailhead near the Wheeler Peak wilderness in northern New Mexico. Just a walk along the graded route was a joy of discovery, because of the remarkable view of the mountains, which towered just over 13,000 feet. Williams Lake my final destination has an elevation of 11,040 feet and sits in a glacial cirque at the base of these mountains.

Williams-Lake-in-Winter
Williams Lake in Northern New Mexico on a sunny January day, photo by author

My Destination

In January, Williams Lake is frozen solid as a rock and covered with several feet of snow. Because of the ring of lofty summits that surround the small body of water, it is a wonderful spot to sit and ponder the mysteries of life. Winter adds a special kind of beauty and peacefulness to place, as does the hike in, which passes through a beautiful spruce forest. Another advantage of winter is the lack of a crowded hiking trail, for the alpine lake is a popular hiking destination, especially in the autumn, when the leaves turn a golden yellow.

Winter-Clouds
Cloud formations above the Sangre de Christo mountains, photo by author

Clouds From the Bottomside

Since the walk out was just about all downhill, I had a much better chance to take in the stunning mountain landscape. As sunset quickly approached, the overhead clouds took on strange shapes, accented by the sun that was located low in the western sky. The high ridge line of the ring of mountains, which circled Williams Lake, made me feel very small as I continued my descent back to civilization.

Near-Wheeler-Peak
High mountains near Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, photo by author

Reflections On the Walk Out

Overall, I felt very fortunate to be able to access such a place by public transportation. I don’t own a car, so traveling to Nature’s most spectacular locales is often not a viable option. Furthermore I enjoyed my view of the sky as day slowly faded away and turned into night. By the time I made it back to the base of the ski resort (located some 1700 feet below the lake) the sun had set and the first evening stars were visible in the night sky.

First Snow Hits Santa Fe

First Snow In Santa Fe
These sculptures on Canyon Road in Santa Fe receive a small dusting from the snow that fell last Saturday night, photo by author

Warm Autumn

The unusually warm autumn temperatures that we have been experiencing in the nation’s highest state capitol abruptly came to an end last weekend, when temperatures took a big plunge and little white flakes of frozen precipitation came floating down from the sky. The snow soon melted, but early birds, who were up and about on Sunday were witnesses to a visual treat – a dusting of snow.

light snow in Santa Fe
Light snow and cold temperatures make for bas relief images all across town, photo by author

Bas Relief

The cold crisp mountain air combined with early morning lighting conditions created ideal conditions for creating photographic images that looked with bas relief prints. Here, dry powdery snow on top of a blacktop parking lot created these striking results.

Graphic design in the snow
A dusting of snow had an intriguing effect to these words that were applied to the road surface with white paint, photo by author

Wintertime Graphic Design

The snowfall created strange visual effects to letters and words painted to the asphalt road surfaces.

abstract art in the snow
This manhole cover takes on a whole new appearance after the overnight snow fall, photo by author

Abstract Art In the Snow

Many of the NY abstract painters of the post war (WWII) era, enjoyed working in black and white and shades of gray that fell in between. This snowfall gave me a chance to make an image that resembled an early Pousette-Dart painting.

Sculpture on Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico
This cool cat is one of the many sculptures that can be found along Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

On Canyon Road

Santa Fe is one of those scenic western towns that has seen an explosion of art galleries within its city limits and much of this displayed art can be found on the trendy Canyon Road.. Canyon Road is a long winding narrow lane that is filled numerous art galleries and studio spaces. The outdoor sculpture made for an interesting artistic element amidst the freshly fallen snow.

Pond Skimming At Taos Ski Valley

Snow-capped Sangre de Christo Mtn.

Last Day of the Season

Today, Easter Sunday was the last day of the ski season at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. As I am an employee, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a spot, where I could view the crazy antics of the many skiers and snowboarders, as they came flying down the slope and tried to negotiate 40 feet of open, chilly water. The competition went on for a couple of hours, as costumed skiers and snowboarders flew down the slope and tried to cross the makeshift body of water. A good time was had by all as only a few lucky individuals made it across the watery course. Losers got to soak in a hot tub that was set up right near the temporary body of water.

Late Season Snowstorm

This event would not have been possible without the cooperation of Mother Nature, who earlier this week graced the New Mexican Sangre de Christo Mountains with over a foot of the white stuff. TSV collected almost two feet, which made for some great skiing and boarding. If not for this recent snowstorm, the popular annual event would have been canceled because of the unseasonably warm temperatures that have descended on the region. Several weeks of 60 and even 70 degree days have turned much of TSV’s snow cover to a mushy meal during the daytime, only to be frozen again overnight. On this last day of the season, these conditions were returning, though some good early morning skiing was still available at higher elevations.

Pond skimming at Taos Ski Valley

There’s Always Next Year

Though thoroughly enjoyed by all, a definite sadness descended over the crowd that had gathered to watch the fun and games. For once five o’clock rolled around and the event ended, everyone had no choice to head for their vehicles and make the long drive down the mountain, knowing full well that the next skiing days were now over six months away.

Snow On Spanish Moss

Snow on Spanish Moss
Snow on Spanish Moss

Here’s a rare sight, snow-draped Spanish moss hanging from a live oak tree. This picture was taken in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, which can be found in the northeastern portion of the Palmetto State. Snow in this neck of the woods is not common but does occur from time to time. The snowstorm that rolled in late last night continued well into the daytime hours, depositing almost eight inches in the process.  This winter is turning out to particularly snowy one, a situation that was enjoyed by all the kids in town.

The snow storm kept everybody at home today (snowplows do exist but their use is reserved for keeping the main highways clear. Most town residents stay home and wait for the white stuff to melt, as the city has no money or vehicles to clear the roads. The kids seemed to particularly enjoy the reprieve for readin, writin and rithmetic as they got to slide down the few hills. One of the best hills is right outside the house where I am staying . It has been busy all day with youngsters who sometimes have to use their imagination to find something smooth enough to transport them down the hill.

The birds don’t particularly like the snow, but they come to the collection of bird feeders that I set out to feed them. Quite a few different species come to munch on the suet and seeds that get left out outdoors. Juncos are abundant as are the white-crowned sparrows. Chickadees, nuthatches and an occasional towhee can also be seen. There are also a couple of pairs of cardinals that can be seen. One of the males is pictured in the next picture.

Cardinal in Winter
Cardinal in Winter

Tonight the snow has changed to freezing rain, so who knows what tomorrow may bring. If the ice is thick enough, the kids just might another day off from school. And since the daytime temperatures are forecast to be only in the 30’s, the ice and snow might remain in place for a few days. No problem for me as the long as the electricity stays on, for I can stay at home and write.

Hope this winter finds all readers doing well.

Best of luck.

South Carolina Snowman
South Carolina Snowman

First Snow In Montreal

Winter Mural in East Montreal
Winter Mural in East Montreal

Our first snow fell today in Montreal, leaving two to three inches of the white stuff all over the city. The extra few degrees of cold temperatures is a bit of a shock, to the system, but the snow looks very stately as it fills the city parks and covers the cars.

However,  the wind that whips down the cold canyons in the downtown area takes some getting used to, for it chills your right down to your bones. Actually, a warm-up is on the way, but that means all the snow will melt. Life is finished trade-offs, even among the little things.

My departure date from Montreal back to the states is getting nearer everyday. It is not an event that I wish to undertake, for I would be quite happy remaining here at the border of French-speaking Canada. I like the metropolitan area, especially the abundance of art which can be seen everywhere, such as the mural on the side of the building that is the subject of the photograph. Take a close look at the tree in the foreground of the picture, for it is not part of the painting, but a real tree growing on the street. Still, my departure my Montreal has a good side to it, for I will be in warm and sunny South Carolina for December and January. I’ll still miss the friendly city.

The Baie at Night
The Baie at Night

Groundhog’s Day In Maine (today the green grass is visible everywhere)

the groundhog
Closeup Groundhog (Marmota monax) by Eiffelle courtesy Wikipedia

Today in Maine the sun came out and shown brightly for the whole day, but the temperatures remained just a few degrees below freezing. Just about everywhere the grass is visible, a rarity for this part of the country at any time in February. Two weeks ago we had a good snow cover, but a heavy came and washed most of the white stuff away. Snow can be found only in the piles that the snowplow drivers left behind and on the lee side of buildings, where a few shady spots remain.

However, there must be something to that old folktale, for we are forecast to receive some snow tomorrow evening (not much, but it’s still snow), more possibilities on Saturday (but according to our illustrious weatherman that one is suppose to be a near miss), but the weather service is watching a developing storm for early next week. All proof that the lowly woodchuck knows more than we give him (or her ) credit.

Actually, Groundhog’s Day has grown in popularity, as of late. (I think the movie might have something to do with that), for now the participants in Punxsatwney, PA number near in the tens of thousands. Punsatawney Phil is the name of the rodent in Pennsylvania, but he is not alone for groundhogs all across America and Canada have decided to join Phil.

There is quite a list and here are some of the more interesting names. They include Sir Walter Wally from Raleigh, NC, French Creek Freddie from French Creek, WV, General Beauregard Lee from Snellville, GA, Staten Island Chuck from Staten Island, NY, Octoraro Orphie from Quarryville, PA and Spanish Joe from Spanish, Ontario, just to name a few. So far none of the female half of the population has been bestowed with such an honor, but I’m sure that day is coming soon.

Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania
Punxsatawney Phil on Groundhog's Day 2005, photo by Aaron Silver coutesy of Wikipedia Commons

One interesting note is that this day follows at the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox, a date that was important to both the Christian and pagan cultures of Northern Europe.

For the Christmas the day is called Candlemas, a feast day that is connected to the Purification of the Virgin and the end of the epiphany season.

To the pagans the halfway point marks Imbolc, and it is celebrated with bonfires.

So happy Groundhog’s Day everyone and if you haven’t got anything better to do you can rent the movie. It’s a classic.