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Groundhog!

By Gerald Milnes

Groundhog
French Creek Freddie cautiously emerges from his den at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, near Buckhannon. Photograph by Tyler Evert.

On February 2 every year, West Virginians pay special attention to French Creek Freddie, our state weather-predicting groundhog who resides at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in Upshur County. Each Groundhog Day, Freddie is brought out from winter slumber to either see his shadow and dive back into hibernation, or not see his shadow, it being a cloudy day, and bear tidings of better weather ahead. That being the case, folklore has it that spring is about to pop and we’re done with winter.

But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. An old farmers’ maxim goes:

On Groundhog Day,
        Have half your corn and half your hay.

This saying tells farmers to be prepared for a lengthy stretch of winter weather following this special day. Folklore provides such beliefs and advice in order to help farmers prepare for future weather trends that directly affect their particular occupation. They might observe Groundhog Day, but practical farmers are skeptical.

Many eastern states in this country have their own groundhog weather predictors. There is Buckeye Chuck in Ohio, Octoraro Orphie, and Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, to name a few. But where did these traditions originate, and what do they really mean?

Weather lore is widespread and varied in West Virginia. Some folks talk about the “robin snow” and the “onion snow.” Some count the number of fogs in February to predict the number of snows that will be coming before spring arrives. We’ve all heard about the wooly worm and weather predictions based on how much black and brown he sports, or that the height of hornet nests from the ground relates to the intensity of winter. Some see various positions of the moon as indicating wet or dry seasons. All over West Virginia blacksnakes have been hung on fences, belly up, to bring on wet weather.

July 3 brings the onset of dog days — as proved by the appearance of the Dog Star, or Sirius. The weather on this day will portend the weather for the next 40 days. Sirius is so bright that the ancient Romans thought it added to the heat of the sun and brought on the hot, dog days of summer.

Most beliefs of this kind are not made up by any recent whim. They are based on traditions that often go back in history to sometimes confusing beginnings. Several western European countries have animals that predict weather. Celtic culture was widespread in ancient western Europe, and the date of February 2 has ties to an early Celtic festival. Before Christianity, this time of year was held in the Celtic world of western Europe as Imbolc, a festival marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.