It was cold today. It was windy.
Hold steady, comrades.
As I write, the sky is blue like a drop of ink just spilled on a page. The days are getting longer now and the nights are, too. When I was waiting for the bus this morning, clenching my jaw harder with every new blast of frigid wind, a word came to mind that I’d read in Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED:
apricity – n., The feeling of warmth in Winter.
When you’re able to stand in a sunny spot to avoid the chill, it means that the armies of winter are retreating. And not a moment too soon. Early last week I woke up and saw it was snowing. I said a bad word at the snow. I conjured an image of Old Man Winter in my mind and I cursed his wretched heart. I reported Mother Nature to Child Protective Services.
I meditated on the Groundhog.
This winter has been so long and intense that discussing the weather isn’t just elevator small talk anymore. The weather is no longer innocuous. A friend told me recently that he brought up the harshness of the snow assault at work. That’s the story of how he found out that everyone in is office thinks global warming isn’t real.
I had to turn off the cold water in my downstairs sink because the pipes will freeze if any non-scalding water pumps through them.
On the bus I told an old woman sitting next to me that it was going to snow again this week. We held each other and wept until the driver told us we had to get off at the next stop.
I went to visit my parents recently and the tree in their front yard was adorned with quivering, navy blue orbs. I wiped the frost and condensation from my glasses and found that they were robins, having arrived up north too soon. The snow all down the block where the poor birds clustered was speckled with pomegranate-colored splotches. It was so cold they were shitting themselves.
People whisper the forecast to each other and surreptitiously pass notes in corridors. The notes contain two numbers: the high and the low. Both numbers have been frightfully short of 32° for weeks. America’s politics aren’t polarized. Its temperatures are.
Literally polarized. The Vortex, that dreaded snow cyclone, has flung one of its miserable tentacles sweeping over a once temperate continent. Before this winter few of us were even aware that way up north there slept a swirling titan, the icy dervish that that would rain frozen hell upon our heads until its immense hunger for misery was sated. Before the apricity set in we skittered out into the open with the only purpose of making it as swiftly as possible to the next warmish spider hole.
The Vortex turned us into rodents. But more on that later.
People are jumpy. People are exhausted. Do you think people in Atlanta seriously couldn’t drive through two inches of snow and that’s why they got stranded on the highway? No. The people of Atlanta gave up.
It’s the same climate, hopscotching over the latitude lines, that claimed Sir John Franklin. In 1845, one hundred and twenty eight polar explorers lead by Franklin left their camp in the Northwest Passage and brought only the following provisions:
- Curtain rods
- Several handkerchiefs
- An entire sled full of shellac-based button polish
- A large Davenport desk (presumably well-polished)
Why did they do that? We don’t know because they all died. Apparently you need more to survive in the Arctic than garbage you’d find at a Victorian yard sale. But surely it was the cold that did them in. The snow. The White Madness. It could happen to us. We need to keep our wits about us. We need to know when we’re being lied to.
We need to think seriously about the Groundhog.
The Groundhog Day tradition goes back to the shadowy meteorological cults of backwoods European serfs. Think True Detective meets the Brothers Grimm. They worshiped bears, for reasons that seem obvious enough. If I were a Mesolithic human who thought a millstone was an exciting theoretical technology I could see myself mistaking the now-extinct Agriotherium for a bestial god-king. It was nine feet tall when standing with a body mass comparable to a rhinoceros and a bite strength estimated to be stronger than any mammalian predator known to science. The sacred bear, so the Euro Hillbillies believed, had prognosticating powers and could dictate the weather.
Over time the traditional animal thought to able to forecast the weather became a marmot.
Centuries later the New World pioneers still consulted the marmot for an annual weather report. Buckle-hatted pilgrims sought out vast tracts of land where they could freely impose Bronze Age beliefs on their neighbors because the Brits were sick of their shit. But the years wore on and things mellowed out and the fanatics contented themselves with making fun of the Pennsylvania Dutch, a tradition that is still practiced to this day.
In February 1847 James Morris, a shopkeeper from Morgantown, PA, wrote in his diary:
“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six week’s nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”
Morris added: “Those Hun bastards.”
To this day we are shackled to the peeping, popping Groundhog. We have lost our regal ursine roots. Rather than stoically hibernate, we scratch around nervously, clinging to the landscape and live a life of permanent, cringing fear. Because we are abject. Because we are mislead.
The Groundhog is lying to us.
You’d expect that this preposterously ignoble animal, a wriggling land fish nosing around in the frigid air, would be completely incapable of predicting the weather and thus would be wrong as often as he was right. Chance alone would dictate a 50-50 split. Half the time he would predict the end of winter correctly. Half the time he’d be wrong. You’d expect this if the Groundhog were an honest rodent. However. There is data that suggests the Groundhog’s prediction rate is closer to 39%. He’s usually wrong. How could this be?
He’s tricking us. Keeping us on our toes. Plotting.
I propose that we liberate ourselves from the woodland myths of our bewildered forefathers. I propose that Groundhog Day henceforth be known as Harold Ramis Day.
But wait! you ask. If we ditch the Groundhog, how will we know whether winter will end earlier than climatically determined by the regular and immutable shift in the Earth’s axis? What sub-sentient beast native to temperate forest regions will help us decide which winter clothes to keep out and which to put in the attic?
The Bear is a fearsome and savage beast. It is not fit for the modern age. At Boy Scout camp I once came very close to a bear and had to be very still while it walked by me and I learned a lesson about bears I will never forget. They stink. Like a skunk with B.O. No, the animal I propose may not be as mighty as the Bear, but nor is she deceptive and conniving like the Marmot.
Consider the Goose.
The goose is a noble and true animal. She comes to our latitude to announce the Rise of Spring and the Fall of Autumn. Like the entourage of a beatific god-beast, they appear in graceful formation out of the Southern sky. They are a visitation of hope as the chilly death grip loosens from around our necks and we desperately choke down our first free gasps of unrefrigerated air. Like the clarion trumpets of herald angels they regally announce their presence:
Their waddle brings joy to children. Their outstretched wings inspire us to strive for the future, to stand tall and correct our posture which has been so bent by the gusty winds of this dead season. Their insatiable hunger for bread provides the elderly with something to do while sitting on park benches.
And they are true. The geese will arrive only when warmer winds bear them aloft across our thawing, blue marble skies. They are not tricky. They have no pretense. For instance why is it that when geese fly in formation one side of the V is always longer than the other?
Because there are more geese on that side.
They are a simple creature, without schemes.
The Goose Song Festival will be a weeks-long carnaval to punctuate the lull in the holiday calendar between the time Christians breathlessly celebrate the birth of their God King and the time they give thanks a few months later for his unspeakably cruel torture and execution. February and March will be dedicated to the hope of a new Spring, heralded by the pleasant, distant, high-altitude cries of the first pioneering gaggle to appear overhead.
What about Punxsutawny Phil?
Punxsutawny Phil can Punxsutawny Fuck himself. I’ve had enough.
So, apparently, did New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who violently threw Phil’s accomplice Staten Island Chuck to the ground in an act of malice that will no doubt cost us several more weeks of winter. The hostilities have broken out. This is the War on Winter.
Let the groundhogs tremble as we shake the Earth with our confident footfalls. Let us not be bound to the subterranean rodent, but be unshackled from Earth’s surly bonds like the noble Goose. Let us choose the army of angelic trumpets over the hordes of wriggling, mammalian worms.
So when you next find yourself commiserating with someone about the cold, proudly exclaim THE GROUNDHOG IS A LIAR and honk in the person’s face like a goose might. Otherwise we may never regain our sanity.
Landfish Photos Courtesy of the always clever Dimitri Karagiannis, whose photography is worthy of National Geographic, or at least State Semi-Finals Geographic.
Freezing Robin Photos Courtesy of my mother Marie Kelly, who is my mother.
Originally posted on Tumblr in March of 2014. It was later reported that Staten Island Chuck died of his injuries.