The groundhog's little joke

April 03, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The groundhog, who was a nasty little rodent even before his celebrity status went to his head, had quite obviously lied.

Back in February, surrounded by television cameras and men in frock coats, he had promised an early spring. Yet here we were on the last night in March, huddled by the wood stove, with the wind screeching outside and snow driving horizontally past the windows. There were daffodils in bloom, true enough, but they were buried in the growing drifts. If this is really spring, then Punxsutawney's really in Puerto Rico.

As it grew gradually lighter on the morning of April Fool's Day, the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Well, perhaps not crisp, exactly, as the temperature never did drop below freezing. But it was deep and squishy and even, and the wind was pretty crisp. Some of us wondered if school might be delayed, but Harford County had obviously put its faith in the groundhog, for the school buses were slooshing down the snowy roads right on schedule.

It wasn't totally wintry. Once it began to make its way up the eastern sky, the sun was quite strong, and a certain amount of melting began. But the wind continued to screech, and the atmosphere was far from springlike. Doors rattled. Windows shook. It took a December-sized squirt of pressurized ether to get the diesel tractors started. When I went out to buy the newspapers, the convenience store was almost out of coffee, which is just about as important as pressurized ether and performs a parallel function.

The sharp wind was mostly out of the northwest, but it was blowing so hard that it was hard to escape. Even buildings provided only a partial lee, as there were little backdrafts of wind whipping everywhere. A lot of wet snow had piled up on my front doorstep, which faces east, and the barn's east door had a good-sized drift against it.

People who live out on the plains say they learn to like the wind, which seldom stops. But they also seem to commit suicide a lot, which to me seems understandable. Winds like this April Fool's howler are nerve-wracking, and I wouldn't want to live with them all the time.

On the other hand, it's variety that keeps Maryland's sometimes ridiculous weather from becoming oppressive. A couple of days before the daffodil-burying snowstorm, a hot summery noon had given way in minutes to black clouds, winds gusting to 70 miles an hour, lightning, hail and torrential rain. Then tranquillity returned and the birds resumed their songs, all in under an hour. That sort of thing keeps you on your toes and encourages you to defer suicide, in order to be around to see what will happen next.

Outbursts of extreme weather do damage, it's true, but they can also have unexpectedly healthy side effects. Big winds prune the woods, blowing dead limbs and weak branches right off the trees. Forest fires open the way for new growth. Floodwater pouring into the Chesapeake Bay reduces salinity and, among other things, kills parasites that kill oysters.

"Dirge of the dying year"

The late P.B. Shelley, in his poem celebrating the ''wild West Wind,'' seemed to comprehend all that, except perhaps the part about the oysters. The wind that blasts away the dead leaves of autumn is a wild spirit, a ''dirge of the dying year,'' but it preserves as well as destroys, and is also the harbinger of a distant spring.

(Shelley, who was fascinated by violent weather, appropriately died of it; he drowned while sailing a small boat in a squall off the Italian coast. He'd packed a lot into his 30 years and had known both artistic renown and personal notoriety. Of course, that was in the days before young poets were all either teaching assistants or waiters in coffee houses.)

By noon on the day of the April Fool's Blizzard, the weather had changed once again. I was hanging around the barn waiting for a veterinarian and listening to meltwater running everywhere. On a south-facing bank where at 6 a.m. the daffodils had been completely buried, there was no snow remaining at all.

Later that afternoon, on the way to the office, I passed a scruffy-looking groundhog standing by the edge of the road. He was just far enough into a field so that I couldn't have hit him if I'd tried. I stared at him, and he looked back with a smug yellow-toothed grin, as if to ask how I was enjoying the spring.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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