Answers to your questions

Published 9:29 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

Last month, when I confessed my love of Groundhog Day, I did not include details on Punxsutawney Phil’s current prognostication. I couldn’t. My column deadline occurred before I returned from my first pilgrimage to the mountains of Pennsylvania to watch the famed seer of seers foretell the weather. Because so many of you have asked about my trip, I’d like to answer some of the most common questions.

What did Phil say? Upon seeing his shadow, Phil declared six more weeks of winter. Here in Farmville, people may be forgiven for thinking that this prediction was inaccurate. We’ve enjoyed several sunny days, including a few with temperatures in the 70s. Trees are starting to bud, and I have seen my first butterfly. Chesapeake Chuck and Sir Walter Wally, groundhogs with attentions more regionally directed, disagreed with Phil and prophesied an early spring. They may gloat, but on Phil’s behalf, I feel obligated to point out that New York and New England have endured several major winter storms in recent weeks.

For example, 30 inches of snow fell in Cary, Maine, on Feb. 13.

What’s the difference between a groundhog and a woodchuck? None. Both refer to the same kind of animal (scientific name Marmota monax). And, in some dialects, the critters are called whistlepigs.

Did you get a special memento from your trip? Yes! A group of artists provided some edible pigments, and Phil created a masterpiece. It is titled “Cabin Fever Chaos.” I purchased a numbered, signed reproduction ($5). How does a groundhog sign artwork? With a paw print, of course.

How does the actual event compare with the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day (starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell)? The movie gets a surprising amount of information correct. Punxsutawney is a small, rural town (population just under 6,000) about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Phil’s reported residence is a tree stump at Gobbler’s Knob.

Men ceremoniously dressed in top hats and tails wake him up just after dawn to get the weather report. His report is delivered in groundhogese and translated with the aid of a magical cane made of acacia wood. The media is omnipresent, and Phil usually predicts six more weeks of winter.

Yet, I noted some important differences.

The movie’s main character gets up at 6 a.m. and looks out a window to view a sunlit street. Here’s the truth: At 6 a.m. on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney (and in Farmville), it is still dark out. Pre-dawn twilight won’t start seeping into the morning sky at 6 a.m. for several weeks, and then daylight “savings” time will arrive, plunging the hour back into darkness. The folks in Punxsutawney take advantage of the darkness. The party at Gobbler’s Knob begins at 3 a.m., and an extravagant fireworks display heralds the anticipated sunrise.

Gobbler’s Knob isn’t in the center of town. Punxsutawney does have a nice downtown plaza, Barclay Square, where Groundhog Day events feature chainsaw carving demonstrations, ice sculpting and other fair-required paraphernalia (like funnel cakes). In real-life geography, Gobbler’s Knob sits a mile and a half out of town. A fleet of school buses serve as shuttles to transport people up the steep terrain. Phil’s weather prediction is made on a stage in a natural amphitheater, and the flanking hillsides provide spectators a great view. The movie makes it seem as if hundreds of Phil’s fans are on hand for the weather announcement. In truth, they number in the thousands.

Punxsutawney didn’t actually play a starring role in the movie. The town’s isolation and the lack of an airport posed logistical challenges, so the filmmakers selected Woodstock, Ill. as a stand-in. The physical buildings may be different, but the ambiance is correct, right down to the bowling alley. If you have watched the movie, you’ll feel like you’ve seen Punxsutawney.

And finally, people ask, When will spring really arrive? This year’s vernal equinox will occur on Monday, March 20 at 6:28 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time). Winter may yet deliver a surprise punch, but you may be sure that the new season will arrive precisely on time.