Last week, I devoted the Journal to a consideration of the prognostications of one Punxsutawney Phil, the “Seer of Seers” groundhog who makes the annual prediction about the strength or lack thereof of the rest of what, according to the calendar, remains of our winter. On Feb. 2 in western Pennsylvania, Phil saw his shadow and according to tradition, winter weather was supposed to hang around for six more weeks.
But as I noted, with just a touch of incredulity, when Phil spoke that morning it was warm, rainy, and anything but wintry. To me, it definitely looked like that rodent, and many of his competitors, who came to the same forecast conclusions, would be flat-out wrong.
I did, however, check out some other forecasts, from those emanating from the sometimes hyperbolic Weather Channel to the relatively sober numbers compiled by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. The latter suggested that we had an “equal chance” of experiencing weather typical for this time of year. If you have a long enough memory and good data, that would mean that February through at least the middle of March would, most likely, be typically cold and snowy.
So, I wrote, Phil “may have been on to something after all.”
And indeed, this seems to have proven true. The day after Feb. 2, the temperature took a nose-dive and the snow, which had largely melted away, returned. Then it snowed again. And again. And as I write this week’s edition of the column, there’s a chance that by the time you read this, it will have been after you’ve come in from shoveling what may—or may not— be a “significant accumulation” of the white stuff. Perhaps it will also have been after you’ve booked passage to southern climes, or, well, to Punxsutawney to strangle a remarkably prescient rodent.
Me, I’ll still be on the ridge, and I’ll be doing something I’ve done for most of my life: revel in an old-fashioned New England winter. Now, I can do this both because somewhere in my background, I must have a modicum of Nordic genes, and I also have to admit to being blessed with good health, even in this, the winter of my life, or, at least, the mid-to-late autumn. (I’m closing in on 64.) So, when the temperature starts to drop and the snow begins to fall, I do not regard the weather with dread. The cross-country skis are ready, and I head out at a moment’s notice. The snowshoes are there to enable me to explore the countryside that’s difficult to traverse on skis. When the snow’s not too deep, I have cold-weather boots that allow me to tromp all over creation in search of tracks and actual wildlife to photograph and enjoy. And when the snow has finished falling, I don’t even mind the work required to remove it from the driveway.
I may be at that age when the somber warnings about getting youngsters to toil for you are raised, but I always figured they were talking about me toiling for octo- and nonagenarians. I also figured, as I pushed aside dry powder then, last week, heaved wet snow, that were I to have the coronary I was warned about, it would, perhaps, be better to go to my reward with my boots on.
But my heart’s fine, and when I finished the job, and the next one, and the one after that, I counted my blessings, smiled, and slept well. In the daylight, I enjoyed the sparkle of a bit of ice coating the twigs and berries, and while the snow-turned-to-sleet-turned-to-freezing-rain put a crust on my ski trail and made the going more difficult, it also gave us perfect conditions for taking out the toboggan when my granddaughter and her folks paid us a visit.
According to a fascinating article in last December’s issue of National Geographic, humans have been sliding downhill on boards for perhaps 10,000 years. (Contrary to what my children would tell you, I wasn’t there in the beginning.) Sometime later—nobody is sure precisely when—Native Americans got the idea that if you lashed boards together, you could carry heavy things, animal carcasses, for example, over the snow. Later still, someone, perhaps from observing river otters, who delight in sliding down frozen or just muddy hillsides, determined that if you hopped on this lashed together contrivance and let gravity work its wonders, a great time could be had by all.
At the most extreme level, we now have bobsled, luge, and skeleton tracks at Sochi and other Olympic venues. At the simplest level, we have otters going down their slides, kids zipping down the snow-packed streets, and us flying down hills and hoping to avoid some not-well-placed trees.
Maybe you heard us, giggling like, well, a bevy or romp—both acceptable terms for a Lontra canadensis collective—of otters. Over and over we slid, often hauling my granddaughter back uphill on the toboggan, thus retracing its history. Eventually, she got cold and her folks brought her inside to warm up in her rocking chair by the woodstove.
I stayed behind for a while. On my way to the toboggan run, I’d smelled something curious: the characteristic scent of a skunk.
Mephitis mephitis, the Striped Skunk, is certainly one of our best known mammals. Omnivores with a definite preference for just about any animal it can subdue, skunks remain active throughout the winter. While they don’t hibernate, they do tend to lay low in underground dens and live off fat reserves. But right around Valentine’s Day, sexually mature males begin to get, um, sexual, and if you’re out at night, you can sometimes see, or, at least, smell these critters as they start making the rounds of dens that contain females. If the ladies are not yet sexually receptive—their heat periods typically take place between February and April—the would-be dads are shown the door. And even if the females are ready, they’re not exactly happy to be intruded upon.
Aboveground, humans may be involved in all manner of Valentine’s Day tenderness, but in the subterranean Mephitis dens, you can almost hear Tina Turner wailing “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Among courting skunks, things are over in a minute or two, and then he beats a hasty retreat, most likely in search of the next receptive female.
As I searched, there was no telling whether he found what he was looking for. In the crusty snow, he didn’t leave any tracks. The only sign of his emergence was that mephitic aroma. It definitely didn’t smell good—there are plenty of cues you can’t take from nature—but it is a sign, like the hooting courtship of owls, the arrival of robins to gorge on holly berries, and the first drops of liquid into the maple sap buckets, that we’ve turned a corner towards the growing season.
This year, Phil seems to have called it right. But even if winter continues, there’s a change in the air. Just don’t think about offering Eau de Mephite as a gift of love.