Groundhog Day


Farm Notes

The tradition of pulling a groundhog out of its burrow to see (or not see) his shadow and forecast the coming of spring is so perfectly silly—so utterly ridiculous—I think it is downright charming. It has absolutely no basis in science, but who can resist a pudgy rodent predicting the weather?

The holiday has deep roots in both ancient pagan and Christian traditions in Europe. For a time, clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, a vague predictor for how long and cold the weather was expected to be. Bears were weather predictors for medieval cults, as were sacred badgers for English Catholics. Over the centuries and in Germany in particular, many turned to hedgehogs to take over weather prediction. When German settlers came to America, they brought their traditions with them, but found Pennsylvania to be completely lacking in hedgehogs. Groundhogs, on the other hand, were plentiful. The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated on February 2nd, 1887 in Punxsutawney, PA.

The 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray is equally ridiculous and equally charming. The idea that someone could be caught in a Twilight-Zone-like time loop beginning the same day, day after day, is so silly it borders on genius. I love little details like playing the song “I Got You Babe” on the clock radio every morning as a metaphor for hell on Earth. In fact, if you’ve never seen “Groundhog Day”, I highly recommend popping some popcorn and cozying up on the couch one snowy February night and watching it!

I find myself thinking of that movie this time of year because every February I seem to experience a similar loop. Every day is the exact same sequence of events—day after day—with so little variation that my life becomes nearly 100% predictable. Such are the monotonous winter days on our farm: coffee and breakfast before dawn; then chores in the barn. I do a status check on our four-legged moms and babies, water and feed laying hens, goats, and sheep. My husband Peter goes to the cheese plant where he drains the cheese vat from the night before, hanging the heavy cheesecloths full of curd to drain. I eventually join him in the plant where we wash up and clean equipment until all the stainless steel is gleaming.

After lunch, phone calls, and computer work in the house—and maybe a few tosses of the Frisbee for Archie our Border collie—it is back to the cheese plant for salting and packing. Peter visits the neighbor to get more milk, fills the newly cleaned vat and sets it to pasteurize before adding cultures and rennet to set overnight. The day ends much the same way it began: back in the barn for chores, checking moms and babies, gathering eggs, tucking everyone in for the night to start the next day anew. And do it all over again.

In between it all, we take turns feeding the woodstove in the house to keep it cozy. The days may become a blur with repetition, but I at least can mark the passage of time by looking at our shrinking woodpile!

But the comparison to the movie “Groundhog Day” doesn’t have to end with the drudgery of the same schedule of events day in and day out. In both the movie and on the farm, every day also represents an opportunity to improve ourselves and the world around us…not only to make sure tomorrow is somehow better than today, but to ensure a future.

When we first meet Bill Murray’s character, he is a jerk to his colleagues, dismissive of the townspeople, and is generally an unlikeable and miserable fellow. As he copes with his odd situation of endlessly repeating the same day, he goes through a series of adjustments in his behavior and actions, hoping to end the torturous cycle. At first these changes are cynical and superficial in his ploy to woo the love interest played by Andie MacDowell. But by the end, Bill Murray’s character learns to embrace the repetition by taking piano lessons, warms to the townspeople he once scoffed, and becomes beloved by his colleagues. Not until his attitude and behavioral changes are genuine and he actually betters himself does his day finally move on, breaking the cycle. There might actually be a small lesson here.

So, what have I been doing to improve myself and the world around me? Not quite enough, I assure you, but I pledge to do better in this regard. Spending time with loved ones, planning for spring, volunteering, even simply improving upon my recordkeeping and cleaning out my garage are all small things that I can do, every day. The urge to move forward, even as we celebrate peculiar ancient traditions, will get me through this and every February!