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Will Punxsutawney Phil wake up too soon?

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Will global warming cause Punxsutawney Phil to awaken from hibernation and crawl bleary-eyed from his burrow BEFORE America's annual Groundhog Day on February 2? Perhaps the Day will have to be held earlier in future.

On February 2, of every year since 1887, Phil has emerged from his underground home on Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania (US) to predict the weather for the rest of winter and, according to his admirers, he's never got it wrong.

It's said that if a groundhog sees it own shadow on Groundhog Day, winter will continue for six more weeks. If there's no shadow, Spring has almost sprung.

Two thousand years ago, ancient Romans believed that if a hedgehog awakening from its winter-long sleep could see its shadow in the moonlight, they could expect six more weeks of winter.

Pennsylvania's first white settlers kept alive the legend of Candlemas Day, "For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May."

Punxsutawney held its first Groundhog Day well over 200 years ago. The first official celebration at Gobbler's Knob was on February 2, 1887. Phil used to be called Br'er Groundhog, but changed his name to Phil apparently referring to King Philip, an American Native People's leader who fought the European settlers in 1675, in "one of the bloodiest and most costly wars in America's history".

On January 21, 2007, the London (UK) newspaper The Observer reported that a study by the world's leading experts says global warming will happen faster and be more devastating than previously thought.

Global warming has been causing spring to arrive unnaturally early for the past several years, according to Clear the Air, a national public education campaign to combat global warming and improve air quality.

"Sadly, it appears that global warming may soon add Punxsutawney Phil to the ranks of the unemployed," said Michael E. Mann, associate professor in the departments of meteorology and geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. "If we continue to increase greenhouse gas concentrations at current rates, spring will come early every year."

In 1993, Phil became world famous when the romantic comedy film "Groundhog Day" was released. Repeats are still shown on TV in many countries, and the phrase "Groundhog Day" has become part of the English language, referring to anything repeated time after time (like same old, same old).

But Phil isn't the only groundhog fated to be feted on February 2. An Internet roundup disclosed these copycat (or copyhog) festivities:

Nashua, New Hampshire plans to hold a Groundhog Gathering beginning at 6.45am (tickets $50).

"You first-timers may think youíre having one of those far-out dreams that seem to come just before the alarm rings," Dean Shalhoup wrote in the Nashua Telegraph.

"Itís cold and dark. You swear you see a 6-foot groundhog walking upright. A vision of Mayor Bernie Streeter garbed in spangles and a stovepipe hat comes through.

"And you insist Garrison Keillor was there, dryly letting you in on the great secret to sure-fire romance: 'To enhance someoneís feelings for you, convince him or her to drink a glass of lemonade into which youíve secretly soaked some of your fingernail cuttings.'

"But those who have been there know itís not a dream. Except, that is, for the Keillor part Ė it was really Judson Hale, editor-in-chief and elder statesman of Yankee Magazine and spinner extraordinaire of New England folklore and humor. He does for us what Keillor does for Lake Wobegon.

"Itís the annual Granite State Groundhog Gathering, and itís as real as is its beneficiary, the Salvation Army of Nashua."

At Brookfield Zoo, Illinois, a pet animal called Cloudy will hog the limelight. The zoo website says: "Attention will be focused on the little 6-pound furry forecaster as she is tempted out of her winter digs with a carrot-shaped sweet potato cake during the zooís annual Groundhog Day celebration at 10:30 a.m. in Childrenís Zoo."

At Catonsville, Maryland ("about 5 to 10 minutes from Baltimore-Washington International Airport") one of Phil's cousins will rise out of a hole on the grounds of the Historical Society, thanks to Ben Ebersole, a Pennsylvania native who has lived in Catonsville for more than 50 years.

"I got interested and made a trip to Punxsutawney last summer and found out what they do and I talked to them and I decided we should have one," Ebersole, a member of the historical society and chairman of its Groundhog Day Committee, told the Catonsville Times.

In Hickory, North Carolina, former pastry chef Gina Johnson's new restaurant, Cafť Rendezvous, was set to open in early February. "We're actually hoping it'll be Groundhog Day, so we can come out of our hole," Johnson told the Charlotte Observer.

In New York, Staten Island Zoo will display its pet groundhog, Staten Island Chuck, "the borough's most celebrated rodent." Tevah Platt wrote this about him, in the Staten Island Advance:

The critter came to the Zoo from his native New Jersey and the tiny, 9-month-old pup formed an instinctive, pseudo-familial bond with [zookeeper Doug] Schwartz as he was bottle-fed from his hand.

With other handlers, Chuck is aggressive and difficult. With Schwartz, he's about as docile as a house cat, glad for a lap and happy as anything to be stroked on the nape.

They make a handsome pair, Schwartz and his 10-pound companion-- and they share a few odd similarities: Both were born in April, they're eccentric, in an appealing way, and they have about the same shade of salt-and-pepper hair.

Vast areas of the US Far West are becoming overrun with a different kind of groundhog, known as a prairie dog. Many landowners and other residents despise these cute little animals, which most of us have seen only in nature documentaries.

They're rodents, they don't hibernate, and in some districts they've been officially classified as pests, to be exterminated. So there's no Groundhog Day for Prairie Dogs.


Story first posted February 2007

Copyright © 2007

Eric Shackle

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