Ruth Bass: Phil and friends are no threat to meteorologists

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RICHMOND — Punxsutawney Phil and his Canadian counterpart, Shubenacadie, were not the most important news last Tuesday when both groundhogs were hauled out of their sleeping quarters and expected to predict the timing of spring. Two things were obvious: They were sleepy, and they didn't see their shadows.

The most important news that day was on a back page of this newspaper where the daily doings of the sun and the moon are reported. It's where you find out that the sun is getting up a minute earlier every day and hanging around for an extra couple of minutes before setting. It's a downer in November, but it's on the up and up now. It's the kind of thing Hillary Clinton might be grateful for at the end of her day. (If you didn't watch the CNN Town Hall in New Hampshire last week, you won't get that. It was a nice moment.)

The sun is the hero in February. She rides higher every day and, on a windless day, it's possible to sit on Bousquet's deck and swap winter pallor for a tan this month. But believers — including those ridiculous men in top hats in Pennsylvania — hailed the lack of shadows as a prediction of an early spring. Practical Berkshire-ites, with memories of Mother's Day blizzards and too much "poor man's fertilizer" in April, know that a prediction of six more weeks of winter is a good thing here. When St. Patrick's Day rolls around in the middle of March, our groundhogs will still be napping

Phil is, by the more common New England appellation, a woodchuck. In his first appearance in 1887, he was introduced as Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. Like the name Punxsutawney, woodchuck is an Indian word, as is the Nova Scotian label of Shubenacadie.

It's all good entertainment and worthy of a few sound bytes. But don't get too giddy about Phil and his various colleagues in North America. He and his descendants have been very good to the town of Punxsutawney, but they've been right only 37 percent of the time. They did have some influence, however, on Bill Murray's famous film "Groundhog Day," a work of genius.

The famous woodchuck's prowess as a meteorologist would be quickly surpassed (if he were on the loose) by his capacity to gobble up a row of green beans in a single night. He would also be elusive. As a teenager, my brother tried to improve his marksmanship by eliminating the garden ravagers at my parents' home and quickly learned that seeing a woodchuck was easy enough. Shooting him was another matter. They apparently have a sixth sense about guns and usually pop into their holes in the nick of time.

One would have to take for granted that PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — would have a stand on Phil's life. Periodically, they do speak out against his captivity and several years ago proposed that the Groundhog Day tradition be preserved with development of a robotic woodchuck. Indeed, the shadow or lack of it would be about the same, but it's hard to battle more than 100 years of tradition.

In the meantime, if you want to hit the Internet and find out about Hillary's grateful moment of the day, link her name to "dust and ashes" in her pocket. It was an audience question that let us burrow a long way into her inner self. Then be grateful that it's after 5 before the sun sets.

Ruth Bass enjoys great sunsets in Richmond. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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