Pennsylvania’s most famous prognosticating rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, today predicted six more weeks of winter. Phil and his cousins have been helping meteorologists since at least 1886, but the tradition of using animals to predict when spring will come is much older, dating back to pre-Christian Europe. This day marks the height of European winter, when farmers would begin anxiously scanning the environment for signs that spring was on its way. In Europe, hedgehogs or badgers were often enlisted as forecasters. When Pennsylvania German farmers brought the custom with them to America in the 18th century, they nominated the groundhog as the most intelligent candidate for the job.
In 1934, Groundhog Day took on new significance, since that was the date of the first Fersommlung (gathering) of the Grundsow Lodge Nummer Ains on da Lechaw (Groundhog Lodge Number One on the Lehigh [River]), in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was the first of 17 lodges founded by Pennsylvania Germans as a way of preserving their language and culture. At their annual gatherings, which continue today, members pay a penalty for every English word that is spoken. Poems, songs, and skits are performed in the Pennsylvania German language. Lots and lots of food is consumed.
Here are two program covers from Grundsow Lodge gatherings that I found in my archives. Enjoy!
When I was growing up, a sure sign of spring was a vase of pussy willow branches that my mother had cut from a neighbor’s yard and brought inside to force. I would wait impatiently for the furry gray catkins to emerge, and they never failed to amaze me. They still do.
Willows (Salix species) are plants that every organic gardener should include in the garden. They produce pollen early in the spring, when many beneficials are just emerging, providing protein for pollinating insects. Pussy willows are easy to grow and fun to cut for flower arrangements. Most garden centers will carry pussy willows in spring, or you can root cuttings from a neighbor’s shrub in water.
To force pussy willow branches, wait until the branches have many tight buds on them. Cut each branch on an angle and smash the end of the branch with a hammer (this will help it soak up water). Bring them inside and place in a tall vase.
These images of catkins from my collection of antique paper may inspire you. Enjoy!
The circa-1910 postcard below is the work of German artist Catherine Klein, who was renowned for her paintings of flowers. It was printed in Germany but appears to have a Russian inscription. If anyone out there can translate, please do!
This Easter postcard, dated 1911, was printed in England:
Oddly, Lord & Taylor (the department store) used catkins in its Christmas advertising during the 1880s, as this trade card attests:
More appropriate to catkin season is this German Easter postcard, mailed in 1914:
It’s officially spring, which means something special for me: I’m another quarter-year older. I was born on the winter solstice, so I measure my age by counting solstices and equinoxes. I find it strangely comforting to use these ancient milestones to mark the passage of time, since it connects me to each generation back to the savanna-wanderers and cave-dwellers, who surely wondered at the transit of constellations across the hemisphere of the sky. Who among them was the first to name and anthropomorphize the stars? Who noticed the connection between the stars and the blooming of certain flowers and the fertility cycles of certain animals? We’ll never know, but we nevertheless profit from their wisdom.
Are we any less thrilled when we glimpse the first winter aconite through a blanket of snow than our ancestors were a millennium ago? I doubt it. Artist Muriel Dawson (1897-1974) captured the same feeling in her painting about 90 years ago:
And artist Sybil Barham illustrated the excitement of the first flush of spring with the help of words from poet Percy Bysshe Shelley about a century ago:
In a world that sometimes seems to travel faster than the speed of light, I sometimes need to pause and remind myself that nature measures time in geologic ages, not in nanoseconds. And each of us has her time and season.