Maine's potent answer to Punxsutawney Phil

This is the last gasp of Candlemas 2000. In Maine the groundhog is called a woodchuck, and none is stupid enough to leave his snug hibernation den on Feb. 2 and come up to take a crack at forecasting the weather. I'm not familiar with any groundhogs in Pennsylvania or other foreign parts of the country, but if you think we're about to put Maine credence in a woodchuck "from away," you have, as the saying runs, another think coming. A new-day TV expert told us if the groundhog sees his shadow on Candlemas, he'll go back to sleep and we'll have six more weeks of winter.

When I consulted my encyclopedia about this, I found that Mr. Funk and Mr. Wagnalls speak at length about Candlemas without reference to meteorology, Pennsylvania, or groundhogs. In Maine, we never see an honest and industrious woodchuck until the green peas are boot high. That will be in May, and the day the farm dog discovers him in the garden and goes crazy. Farm dogs dislike woodchucks and will "tree" one under the nearest stone wall and bark themselves inside out in a frenzy of triumph.

Usually this is close to the very pea vine the woodchuck was eating, and is the end of the story. Nobody thinks about looking for a shadow until the dog quiets down.

I'm not sure that six more weeks of winter is in our Candlemas jingle. We say "half your wood and half your hay," which is where we are anyway. Halfway to bare ground and green grass.

I suggest the skunk replace the groundhog. The skunk hibernates as does the woodchuck, but while the woodchuck snoozes on until green-pea weather, the skunk will rouse now and then to be available if needed. If we get a warm day in the winter, an amiable skunk may appear, fresh from slumber, and come up from his den to look things over. I can cite two occasions.

I was cutting firewood one bleak winter day. It grew balmy, and I took off three shirts. Nary a woodchuck appeared, but a skunk joined me and wandered about as if wondering what it was he meant to do. Somehow, he'd found a used peanut-butter jar and had stuck in his snout. He then found he couldn't back out. I saw readily enough what perplexed him, but owing to his reputation and my reluctance, I was not eager to intrude until we had been formally introduced.

Lacking a common friend to do this kindness, I overcame my shyness and, hurling caution afar, I brought the flat of my ax down upon the jar and smashed it beyond recognition. The skunk was astonished at this, as he supposed he was alone in the jar, but he quickly recovered and came to rub against my ankles to show his appreciation and gratitude. It was an intense emotional moment. I had not experienced such with any other wild animal, and certainly not with any woodchuck.

The other instance I will cite came one morning while I was at the house. It was after a bitter cold night, and the temperature rose with the sun to offer a balmy forenoon. My wife, looking out the window while making breakfast, said, "Gracious sake, there's a skunk going by!" It was, indeed, and a few minutes later she said, "There's another!' When she said this a third time, I said, "A common delusion. Instead of three skunks, you've seen the same skunk three times."

This was so. Our driveway came off the highway and circled the house. Deluded by the snowbanks, the poor skunk kept going around and couldn't find a way out. All I had to do was turn him around and he'd go to Lewiston. He made 15 passes before I finished breakfast and set a plank in his way. We never saw him again, and I didn't look to see if he cast a shadow.

As to six more weeks of winter if the groundhog, or Maine skunk, sees its shadow, I think the Pennsylvania experts have the folklore adages mixed. We have six weeks, all right, in Maine, but not about Candlemas. When, in August, you see the first fleck of goldenrod bloom in the field you may exclaim, "Six weeks to frost!" This is as absolute as pi and the rule of three. Six weeks precisely to the first hard frost that will end the summer. We marked the calendar and covered tomato plants.

Six weeks was not a prediction of dismay, because then came Indian summer and the priceless bright days of autumn when the world turns to gold and everybody in Pennsylvania drives up to see our foliage.

Our other reference to six weeks comes in March and also has nothing to do with Candlemas. In the olden times, when horses and oxen were important, the winter snow was an asset. Runners on snow made it easy to move heavy loads. Had any nut proposed plowing or sanding, I shudder at the thought. In March, every farmer raced against mud-time to get his last load of firewood to the dooryard. Bare ground makes poor sliding.

Notice, too, that March follows scant February and often has six weeks. Fore and aft, two weeks will be slim, but the month of March can use six rows. So six weeks of snow was prosperity itself and a gauge of good fortune. And maybe once in a blue moon we'd get six weeks' sledding in March. And if we didn't, there'd be that afternoon when the snow was gone from the roadway and the animals couldn't start the load, and you'd have to shovel snow from a lingering drift under the runners. Those were the good old days!

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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