Jerry talks about the Arctic on the literary radio program, Bookmark.
Canadian Geographic's interview with Jerry about Arctic Eden.
Some comments on Arctic Eden from Up Here magazine's Facebook page.
The writer's first responsibility is to clarity. Often what's perfectly clear to the writer may be confusing to the reader -- confusing in a way that is not the reader's fault. The writer has all sorts of background info in his head that a reader is not privy to and which can fill in the missing gaps. It's sometimes hard for a writer to see what's unclear; that's where a good editor, and perceptive friends, come in handy.
A few readers have expressed confusion about part of the layout of Arctic Eden. They want to know whether some pages have been mixed up or omitted, because there seem to be gaps in the narrative.
Each chapter has one or two sidebars -- spreads of two or four or six pages on such topics as arctic plants, types of snow, dealing with polar bears, and so on. These topics are independent from the main narrative and come in the middle of the chapters. Each sidebar has its own headline and the pages are slightly tinted. The main chapter narrative may finish one page in mid-sentence and pick up again a couple of pages later, after a sidebar. Some readers don't understand this. They just see a discontinuity in the text when they turn the page.
We could have put the sidebars at the end of a chapter, but I thought they worked better sprinkled throughout. But I'm used to sidebars. So were the editors and designers who read the book before it went to press. When we bumped into a discontinuity, our minds automatically made the jump: this was a sidebar, not a mistake. Most readers also seem to clue into it.
But not all. In retrospect, I would have asked to have the sidebars put at the end of each chapter. The layout would not have suffered much, and it would have been clearer.
This Thursday, November 18, I'll be speaking at the Calgary Public Library. Here's the info:
Odds & ends:
- I became a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society last week -- a rare honor for a writer. Most members are scientists.
- The new Winter issue of explore magazine has a sports journalism story of mine on speed skiers -- the men and women in red rubber skin suits and Darth Vader aero-helmets who bomb down hills at 160-250 kph.
- The same issue uses several of my photos of the Wapta Icefields taken during a ski tour last February.
- Alexandra has been in Peru the last 10 days. She has wanted to visit Machu Picchu since she saw a photo of it in a camera store when she was 14. While she was there, she hiked up Huayna Picchu, the distinctive sugar loaf peak behind the ruins. Yesterday she was at Lake Titicaca. She'll be home in a couple of days.
Categories of modern polar book:
1. Expedition book. A post-trip pr vehicle. With exceptions, little attempt at quality. Tends to be full of misspellings and incorrect history. Sponsors names dropped with a thud at every opportunity. Attempts to give the journey a prominent place in the adventure pantheon of the region. Usually a forgettable product, even in the case of genuinely impressive expeditions.
2. Labor of love. A talented person who is neither a professional writer nor an adventurer does a journey of love and writes a surprisingly moving book about it. It may be their first and only book, and/or their first and only expedition. Supports the truism that everyone has one good book in them.
3. Geezer's memoir. A vain old scientist or police officer recalls the six months or one year they were stationed in the Arctic 40 years ago. They are under the impression that they are making a modest historical contribution; most are not. Generally readable by speed-skimming in 10 minutes.
4. Guidebook. Can be exceptional or pretty useless, depending on who does it. The best guidebooks include little stories gathered about the region rather than mere inventories of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Trouble is that most guidebooks tend not to pay the writers very well, so there's little incentive to do more than a serviceable job. There are exceptions: a hoary classic like The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
5. Journalist's job. A journalist heads up north, hangs around the villages, chats up the scientists, and writes about a contemporary issue like climate change or arctic sovereignty. Tends to be dull and predictable: Climate change bad, Inuit are victims. If you read to pick up a few facts, without expecting any original insights, you won't be disappointed.
6. Rare gems. A scientist who knows how to write, or a writer who knows how to research, gets a bug about the North and produces a one-off work of total originality. Differs from #2 on this list in that the author is a professional, and the book is not necessarily about a single journey; otherwise, similar.
7. Historical rehashes. Very popular, ever since the revival of interest in Shackleton as a model of corporate leadership. A mildly new take on some old explorer, with lots of background filler. The more dramatic the saga, the less impressive these new versions tend to be, because those classic tales have already been well-mined, and pending the discovery of new information, most of what can be said, has been said.
In the hand-to-mouth writing life, turning down work is a lousy way to end a week. In this case, I had to take a pass on a National Geographic gig that would have paid the bills for a couple of months -- or should have, and that was the problem. National Geographic is not only the prestigious yellow-bordered magazine, it's a whole publishing and multimedia industry run out of their headquarters in Washington, D.C. You'd think that such an organization would be a jewel to work for, but photographers have complained for years about their onerous image contracts. In the days of National Geographic Adventure magazine, in particular, freelance photographers struggled and kvetched and strategized in online forums to avoid giving away all sorts of subsidiary rights for the fee of a one-time print sale in the magazine. Some photographers crossed out the offending clauses in the contract before signing; others just swallowed the terms. I swallowed a couple of times.
Freelance writing and photography have a very basic rule of negotiation: You begin with a fair fee in mind that you want to be paid, and a minimum fee you will grudgingly accept. Anything lower, and you walk. You always end up walking a few times a year, because the publishing industry is rife with those who want something for nothing. Some justify their rates by telling you it'll be good "exposure". My stock line is that arctic travelers can die from exposure. Beyond the witticism, once you've had hundreds of things published, you no longer particularly care about exposure. You want to be paid decently.
The woman I was dealing with at Nat Geo was apologetic: it was embarrassing, she said, but that was her budget for this writing assignment. She understood when I politely declined. She didn't try the "exposure" ploy, which is a sign of publishing novices and bottom feeders. It was all very professional.
When I sat on the other side of the desk as a magazine editor, I had a crappy budget, so I sometimes lost good potential contributors too. Often I tried to find those who were just starting out -- copy editors who wanted to write, fiction writers who actually wanted to be paid, recent journalism graduates. I looked for writers who wrote fast rather than struggled to get the words out. I was up front about the crappy rates, as this project editor was with me.
In the rarified air around the Yellow Magazine, or Traveler, rates at National Geographic are fine and it's a great organization to be associated with. As with a government job, once you're in, you're in for life, provided you don't screw up. You're one of the boys. But the mystique of the National Geographic name, the mystique in The Bridges of Madison County, the mystique that Nat Geo works very hard to promote, is not what actually exists today. In the era of legendary Director of Photography Bob Gilka in the 1960s and 1970s, photographers sometimes worked on a single assignment for six months. One told me, in tones of awe, of his $100,000 helicopter budget for one story. Then the bean counters and the lawyers took over, and now sometimes for what they pay, they should be requesting to see not your clips, but your grade point average.
To give a sense of Arctic Eden, the Expeditions page has an excerpt featured in the September/October issue of explore magazine. Coincidentally, I also shot the (non-arctic) cover photo for that issue, during a hiking trip in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland.
I've written elsewhere about the myth that the Inuit have 50 or 100 different words for snow. (In Arctic Eden, I list for fun the 33 different types of snow discernible to a foot traveler and which merit their own word.) This week's New York Times Magazine has an interesting piece on how language affects your perception of the world -- which is the idea behind that Inuit snow myth. The article points out, for example, how the Matses language of Peru requires lawyer-like precision: So if you ask a Matses man, for example, how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that moment, he is forced to answer something like, "There were two, the last time I looked," because he can't be certain that since he last saw them, one hasn't run off with another man or been chomped by a jaguar.
Which brings us back to the Arctic. When explorers asked their Inuit guides, "How long before we get to X?" it was very common to get an unsatisfying answer like, "I don't know." I've heard this myself. It's not that the guides don't know how long it takes to reach a place they know well; but at any moment a storm can come up, delaying travel, or they may spot a polar bear and launch off on a time-consuming hunt -- so the linguistic tradition is to be noncommital. Some explorers perceived this as ignorance.
I try to update this site regularly, but writing professionally and blogging obviously clash sometimes. Although there are people who make their living, or at least their reputation, through their personal websites, most good bloggers write -- whether about films, politics, adventure or themselves -- until they're noticed and start getting paid assignments. Then the blog tends to fade away.
The easiest part of this site to write about is the Gear page, because frankly, none of the magazines I work with are interested in the minutiae of expedition equipment. Yet I think a fair amount about equipment, and research it thoroughly when I'm looking to solve a particular travel problem. So there's a lot to say, and no conflict with paid pieces.
The Expeditions page is hardest. First of all, I don't update during the journeys themselves. I travel to be immersed in the wilderness, not to be permanently connected to home by an electronic umbilical cord. Daily updates are mainly a publicity tool, or a way to shoot your verbal wad if you're not going to be doing it in other ways.
What I want to say about a place or a trip I tend to say later, in the subsequent book or story. On the other hand, Expeditions entries are a good way to practice articulating about a journey. Now and then, a decent line gets borrowed for a magazine piece. But always on this website, I have to balance telling the tale while not detracting from or sabotaging a formal story I may later wish to write.
When I was a magazine editor, it surprised me at first how far ahead magazines worked. In the dog days of summer, we were immersed in Christmas references. And when the weather was coldest, we were writing editorials celebrating how winter was finally over.
But that's nothing compared to the lead time for books. With Arctic Eden coming out next month, it's sobering to reflect how long the process actually takes. Remember as well that Arctic Eden combines words & pictures, so is "only" 30,000 words, and that I've been immersed in the topic most of my life, so not much specific research was required. Also, because of the photos, my involvement in the production process took longer than with a text-only book such as The Horizontal Everest.
The main thing to note is that it took a year from the time I finished writing the manuscript to the end of the process.
June 2008: Signed the contract with publisher.
December 2008. Began writing.
June 2009. Finished first draft.
June-November 2009. Rewriting and revising. A lot of this was my own refining; some was input from the editor.
January-March 2010. Book goes to layout. Cover chosen. Captions written.
May 2010. Color proofs come from China. Last color corrections.
July 2010. A handful of advance copies arrive. Writer gets one.
September 2010. Book available for purchase.
October 2010. Book launch. The official launch is October 14 at The Banff Centre.
Another travel/adventure writing tip that I was slow to learn: The most memorable part of a journey is always the first one or two stories that you share with friends at home. Sometimes when you sit down to "write", you forget what really gripped you and instead you try to build on lesser moments. If an experience leaves a big enough impression to be the first thing you tell people back home about, chances are it will also interest readers.
I've never taken a writing course but there are certain teachable things I wish I'd learned earlier. It would have saved a lot of misery at the desk. One of them is the relation between notes and writing. I'm an inveterate note taker. Even on hard expeditions, when minutes are in short supply, I typically scribble in a journal for at least an hour a day. So many of the details on which stories are built would otherwise be lost.
Sometimes the notes are really good, and I'm tempted to use them verbatim. In small doses this may work, but there is a danger of merely stitching together a bunch of high-spirited notes rather than actually writing. A string of notes, no matter how interesting, does not have any organic unity. It doesn't lead anywhere. The minute there's a gap in your notes, the writing clunks to a halt, because it's not writing at all, just a pastiche.
What I now do is transcribe all my good notes on loose pieces of paper organized into sections that correspond to the structure of whatever I'm writing. Then I read them over and over, till they're in the front of my brain, sort of. Then I start writing. The notes are around me as I write, and I often glance at them as a reminder, but I don't expect them to do the job for me.
It being St. Patrick's Day and all, I thought I'd offer this story I wrote years ago. It was an exercise in using every cliche about Ireland I could think of. I sometimes send it out to friends, especially Irish friends, on March 17. Most of them are still speaking to me.
An Irish Lilt
One June day three years ago Victor "Paddy" O'Sullivan, a retired shillelagh whittler out gathering shamrocks in a country field, had a sudden idea that led him to a cache of leprechaun gold. Now, sure and it wouldn't be fair to tell ye what he did, for it's a simple trick that anyone might apply, and if I let it out of the bag there soon wouldn't be a single glittering nugget left in the whole of the Emerald Isle.
Does my accent sound phony? You can bet it does, for I am about as Irish as Victor "Paddy" O'Sullivan, an immigrant Pole who had shortened his name from Osylyvnchwzsky. However, for the sake of the story I ask that you try not to wince too much if and when, periodically, I give into the temptation to lay on the blarney in brogue.
Back then, o'er the Big Drink, to the paddocks and leas of Ireland.
When the leprechaun who owned the pot of gold discovered it was missing, he flew into a rage the lake of which was never described even by Sean O'Faolain, James Joyce or Frank O'Connor. He tore out great handfuls of his long white hair and flung them about. As soon as they touched the ground, the hairs turned into worms and wriggled out of sight. His piercing cries, which sounded more like a banshee's than a leprechaun's, struck terror into not a few of his comrades.
"Have thee gone mad?" they exclaimed from their shelters behind mushrooms, knolls and carbuncles.
"Ithic!" he wailed in leprechaunese. "Ithic lander lll!" (Free translation: "My gold is gone! Gone!")
"Gone?" they cried in one voice. Whereupon these pint-sized misers, fearing that their own hoards may also have been plundered, went dashing away to check, leaving their poor dispossessed fellow to continue his lamentations.
Paddy, meanwhile, having turned in the gold for paper currency, was leading the life of Riley. He went around with a colleen on each arm, and one elsewhere. He drank only the best whisky; his feet were always well shod. He cut the figure of a fine elderly country gentleman, swathed in green from tip to toe. His neighbors, being Irishmen, were secretly envious of Paddy's sudden wealth, which he had told them came from an inheritance. Sucking on their long stem pipes and crooking their hoary eyebrows, they would ponder among themselves the weighty questions of luck and justice whenever Paddy strolled by, his three buxom colleens in tow.
Leprechauns see more than they are seen, and so know more about others than others know about them. They knew, for example, all about Paddy's non-Irish ancestry, despite the infinite pains he had taken to conceal it. Also, it did not take much leprechaun magic to infer from Paddy's newfound finery that he was the thief. I should mention that while men regard leprechaun gold as fair game, belonging, like pirate treasure, to whoever finds it, the leprechauns themselves do not subscribe to this belief. Each of them spends thousands of years amassing his hoard, and its disappearance is a setback of no small import. Reclaiming Paddy's ill-gotten gold was obviously impossible, since it had already been converted into coin of the realm. But the fear of every leprechaun was that Paddy, after using up his fortune, would seek to replenish it from another store -- for while they knew his trick for calculating the hiding place of their gold, they were powerless to do anything about it. Now leprechauns, though they be but wee folk, have a giant-sized thirst for revenge. So one night at a secret gathering place, all the leprechauns from miles around put their heads together and came up with a plan that they hoped would avenge the theft and ensure that it would not be repeated. To help carry out the details they even hired a poltergeist, who was better-versed in such matters.
First, through the vehicle of one of his colleens, they gave Paddy as fine a dose of the clap as y'd e'er expect to see. Next, they put it into the head of Mrs. Murphy, the local gossip, that Paddy was not, as he'd maintained all these years, a full-blooded Irishman but Pole from Cracow. Now, Mrs. Murphy had a truly fearsome gift o' gab, and before long this rumor was bruiting through the county. It dashed a mortal blow to Paddy's hopes of being chosen Head Shillelagh for the St. Patty's Day parade, an honor he had coveted for three decades and for which this year he had considered himself a shoo-in.
These two were the first in a series of greater and lesser misfortunes to afflict the apostate Pole: everything from slipping in some good Irish cow dung to being creamed with a roundhouse by the middleweight pug Rourke O'Rourke. Leprechaun revenge is slapstick in style, not vicious but exceedingly trying. Soon Paddy was a laughingstock; now whenever he passed by his neighbors, they would as before discuss the weighty questions of luck and justice, but this time with winks and jocular pokes of the elbow.
It did not escape Paddy's notice that the mishaps were flying a wee bit too thick and fast to be coincidences. He had studied Irish lore at one of the top o'universities in Dublin soon after emigrating, and so had a good grounding in leprechaun mentality, which he recognized at work here. He recalled, however, that a fresh shamrock had inimitable value in warding off the little men's whammies. So he got into his trap and rode down to the county nursery, where he purchased a bulk supply of the fine clover. This he scattered about his person, his house and his colleens. "Now sure 'n I'll be as safe as a green frog in green grass," he thought confidently, still with an eye to being chosen the Head Shillelagh for next year.
But Paddy's countermeasure came too late to halt the leprechaun's supreme vengeance, which was already on its way. That very afternoon who should come hobbling down the lane but an auld woman, garbed all in black. Her back was stooped, her head bowed, but even from a distance a vague familiarity played about her withered form. It was Paddy's long-abandoned mother, Mariewschka Osylyvnchwzsky.
"So I've found ye at last!" the old woman cried in her Polish tongue.
"Faith and begorra," Paddy said out loud in Irish. "Sure and that couldn't be my old Mamawicz. Why, she must be at the far end of her eighties by now!"
The ancient Pole did not understand a word of Paddy's brogue but immediately recognized her own nickname, which Paddy had inadvertently uttered. Seizing her son's ears, she shook his head long a vigorously. Paddy squirmed and struggling but could not twist himself free, for despite her age and some stiffness in the joints, Mama O's physical powers were still awesome.
"Faith, Mamawicz, faith! Sure 'n begorra! Bladdaboushsky takawicz obstrepchevsky!" Paddy protested. In the heat of the moment he was relapsing into his native Polish, which had not crossed his lips for thirty years. Hearing this, Mama Osylyvnchwzsky redoubled her shaking, accompanying it with loud scoldings and imprecations which could be heard for miles around and set many neighbors' tongues to wagging. "Sure 'n what be this ungodly speech concernin'?" whispered one and all.
Mama O, it turned out, had been combing the globe for Paddy since that bleak winter day thirty years ago, when he had slipped off without a word. Her travels had taken her from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Shanghai to Seattle. Single-handedly she had carved her way through the malarious forests of Cameroon, scoured both banks of the Irriwaddy for her son's footprints, searched New York house to house. Quite a life she had led since Paddy's disappearance. But it was only last week that the collective telepathy of numberless leprechauns reached across the world to Java, where her search had taken her, and put her on the right track to her wayward son.
Mama O wanted Paddy to return with her at once to Cracow, a prospect which horrified Paddy. It was from her iron rule he had fled in the first place. To go back now would spell the end of his carefree dissolute existence -- his colleens, his shindies, his topes of whisky, his tam o'shanters. But Paddy had never been able to argue down his mother, and years of hard living had made her even more formidable. Besides, the jig was up on Paddy's Irish identity. The few Irishmen who had doubted Mrs. Murphy's gossipmongering would surely have been convinced by Mariewschka Osylyvnchwzsky's incomprehensible shouts. So in the end Paddy bowed to the storm and returned to Poland, much to the glee of the leprechaun community, whose remaining hoards of gold were now safe.
Today, Victor (as he now prefers to be called) lives with his mother in the family home in Cracow. His shillelagh whittler's pension has, of course, been stopped, but he still has enough of a fortune to live on its interest in comfortable retirement. Victor doesn't dwell much on his memories of Ireland, so he tells me. Instead, encouraged by his mother, he is working hard to reestablish himself as a pillar of Cracow society, in the hope of one year being chosen Cabbage Roll King during the St. Wojciech's Day festival in April.
It's always great to see the layout of your book for the first time. It makes the project real. Seeing the first galleys has even more impact than when the printed book arrives.
Have spent much of the week doing layout tweaks and writing 150 captions. My approach with captions is to get the idea down, then start taking away from them until you can't take away any more. Until they're like little haiku poems.
With my new book, Arctic Eden, out in a few months, I've been dealing a lot with editors and copy editors and have been forced to re-evaluate how I spell "Arctic". I prefer to spell Arctic with a capital "A" as a noun and a small "a" as an adjective. It's simple, clear and makes sense: the Arctic; arctic hare; arctic expedition. That's how I spelled it in The Horizontal Everest; I wanted to follow the same rule in this latest book, too. Unfortunately, I could not find a dictionary or style guide anywhere that supported this preference.
I even sought out an old friend, copy editor Susan Dickinson. Susan copy edited my first book; she also copy edits for Canadian Geographic magazine. She's been in the business a long time. She knows her stuff. This is what she wrote me about the Arctic vs arctic issue:
First, we'll agree that when used as a noun, "Arctic" refers to the region north of the Arctic Circle, and when used as an adjective, "Arctic or arctic" means "of or relating to or suitable for use at the North Pole or the regions near it."
Dictionaries present "arctic" as the adjective, with the notation "often cap." Oxford and Random House prefer Arctic fox, Arctic hare, Arctic char, etc., while Webster's suggests lowercase for animal names. So then it comes down to a question of style.
Although you would prefer to do lowercase whenever "arctic" is used as an adjective, there are instances when uppercase is required. For example, an "Arctic expedition" refers to an expedition to the Arctic, and an "Arctic community" is a community located in the Arctic. And I would refer to your project as an "Arctic book" (a book about the Arctic).
Here's another one: "There's an Arctic air mass moving into Northern Ontario, and I'm going to have to pack my arctic clothing before I drive to Sudbury." Here, we're referring to a weather front that actually originated in the Arctic; "Northern Ontario" is an officially recognized region, hence the uppercase "N"; and "arctic clothing" simply means clothes that are suitable for extremely cold weather.
Here are two specific reference books that briefly mention the subject:
"Editing Canadian English" by the Freelance Editors' Association of Canada: uppercase when referring to the region; lowercase when referring to frigid temperatures; in established names of Arctic flora and fauna, usually lowercase: arctic gale; arctic char; Arctic community. [Note that it's "Arctic flora and fauna," which means flora and fauna found in the Arctic, and "Arctic community."]
The Chicago Manual of Style: prefers a parsimonious use of capitals; although proper names are capitalized, many words derived from or associated with proper names may be lowercased with no loss of clarity; lowercase when used metaphorically, as in "experiencing arctic weather in Orlando": Arctic waters; a mass of Arctic air. [Note the previous two usages: water found in the Arctic and an air mass that has formed in or is moving from the Arctic.]
If you can mentally flip the expression around and it means literally "of, belonging to, found in the Arctic," then uppercase is correct (Arctic expedition, travel, community, knowledge, etc.). In the case of weather, it could go either way depending on whether a front is moving from the Arctic into another region or whether the word "arctic" is being used simply to emphasize how bitterly cold it is (it was like an arctic gale during the blizzard).
The three best books on cold in my library are Bernd Heinrich's Winter World, which emphasizes natural history, Snow in America, by Bernard Mergen, and Bill Streever's recent book, simply called Cold. This last one looks unpromising because of its crappy cover, with poor typography, a dull blurb and a hazy polar bear lost in a greenish mist that is presumably ice fog. I saw it in bookstores but passed over it because of the cover. But reviews praised the depth of the book and I eventually gave it a try. The reviews were right, the cover impression wrong. Like the other two works, this is a labor of love constructed over a period of years of thought and experience. It's full of original tidbits that you don't read anywhere else. It doesn't just recycle the old "one must have a mind of winter" cliches.
One of my all-time favorite travel pieces is the late David Foster Wallace's classic Harper's article, Shipping Out, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, about his tropical cruise on what he called the good ship Nadir. I lecture for Adventure Canada's cruises on small ships in the Arctic, and the experience and the people are totally different from those who board floating cities, with casinos and malls, that ply sultry tropical seas, like the one Wallace joined. Arctic visitors are interested in the place; tropical tourists mainly want to be pampered. It's a generalization, but I call it like I see it. Wallace's obsessive, almost superhuman curiosity will have you peeing your pants with laughter, if you are so inclined.
A few years ago, I visited Punxsutawney, Pennnsylvania on Groundhog Day for a book on winter that I was writing. The book never came off, and the fragment from Punxsutawney remains unpublished. Here it is, as a Groundhog Day special:
Three inches of wet snow overnight have turned Punxsutawney into the slush capital as well as the weather capital of North America. Pedestrians, and there are thousands of us, perform little ballet hops at curbs. Drivers along the main street of West Mahoning creep along in that distracted tourist way, one eye looking for a parking spot, the other eye simply looking.
It is February 1, the day before Groundhog Day. Since 1896, this town in western Pennsylvania has represented Groundhog Day in the same way that Times Square gives a geographical focus to New Year’s. For two days each year, fire-eaters, storytellers, beauty queens, men in top hats and tuxedos and up to four times Punxsutawney’s normal population of 6,800 throng the streets. (Not bad for a place with only 150 hotel rooms.) The rest of the time Punxsutawney is either “quiet” or “dead”, according to residents. Stores are simple and ungentrified: Quaint shoppes can’t survive on two days of action and 363 days of the sort of customer Bruce Springsteen sings about.
Groundhog Day is a school holiday in this part of Pennsylvania, but that’s because all 150 school buses in the district are commandeered to bring spectators to Gobbler’s Knob, a clearing on the outskirts of town where Phil, the celebrated groundhog, predicts whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter.
Groundhog Day doesn’t exist in Europe but it began there. Candlemas was a pagan festival of light, in honor of Februa, the mother of Mars, in Roman times and Brigid, goddess of fire, in Celtic lore. Like many pagan rituals, it was later adopted by the church, which grafted on a Christian tradition and made it a day on which to bless the altar candles. Secular candles also burned in all the village windows that evening. Although Candlemas is considered halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 4 is the true midpoint of winter.
In the 1700s, when German settlers arrived in what later became Pennsylvania, they brought a folk belief associated with Candlemas, that if a hibernating animal – a hedgehog, a badger, sometimes even a bear – saw its shadow on that day, six more weeks of wintry weather would follow. The British had a stripped-down version of the same idea: Winter would continue if February 2 was sunny, while cloudy weather (no shadows) foretold an early spring.
It was the German version that took hold in North America. A local hibernator, the groundhog, became the foreteller. Although the first Pennsylvanian reference to the tradition was in 1841, it wasn’t until 1887 that the local newspaper in Punxsutawney, a coal-mining town 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, organized the first Groundhog Day festival. The groundhog was called Punxsutawney Phil, and organizers added a string of whimsical credentials after his name, “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators” that have remained part of the tradition.
The growing popularity of Groundhog Day has spawned pretenders to Phil’s mantle. Nowadays, there are at least 27 groundhog forecasters in North America, including General Beauregard Lee in Atlanta, where winter is a relative term, and Wiarton Willie in Canada, where it is not. There are even events involving a llama, a crayfish and a prognosticating chicken, which “isn’t technically even a groundhog,” as Punxsutawney loyalists archly point out.
Some of these events are charmingly local. In one recent year, 30 people attended the prediction of western New York’s Dunkirk Dave. By contrast, Punxsutawney enlists five times that number of state troopers to keep order. Punxsutawney Phil has maintained his status as America’s unofficial official groundhog partly because being first confers an advantage and partly thanks to the entrepreneurs of the Groundhog Club. They recognized early that unlike coal, Groundhog Day is a renewable resource.
In the late 1940s and 1950s – when The New York Times was harumphing how the Groundhog Day superstition is “beyond understanding” – three far-sighted people in Punxsutawney introduced Phil to a larger world. Frank Lorenzo, president of the Groundhog Club, brought dignitaries and media by train from Pittsburgh and neighboring states for the event. Sam Light, who succeeded him, established the popular tradition of top hats and tails. His wife Elaine was a former AP reporter from Pittsburgh who met her future husband while writing one of her popular yearly articles on Groundhog Day. The pair eventually built the civic center where Phil and his understudies are housed in glassed-in quarters all year.
The single biggest boost to Punxsutawney’s fame was the 1992 movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a man trapped in a time loop, where every day is Groundhog Day. Since the movie’s release, attendance in Punxsutawney has swelled from 1,500 to the 15,000 typical today. And the Groundhog Club has kept pace with modern times: Phil’s website, groundhog.org, is the first listing in a Google search of “groundhog”.
I wander West Mahoning Street in the drizzle. I sample groundhog cookies (bland, despite Elaine Light’s celebrated groundhog-themed cookbooks) and knock back some burned-bean coffee and carminative chili at the one café in town. A rangy man in a tuxedo and top hat, one of the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club, sits at a table giggling hysterically at a friend’s joke. You don’t often see people in tuxedos giggling. Tourists jam the tiny souvenir shop that doubles as the Chamber of Commerce and sells Phil T-shirts, funny hats and Beanie Babies. The Beanie Baby labels have deliberately misspelled Phil’s name, to distinguish them from the authentic, limited-edition version snapped up by locals long before Groundhog Day and selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.
I visit a weather museum nearby, where for two dollars you can buy into the notion of Punxsutawney as the weather capital of America. I have just missed Miss Pennsylvania, but Phil is there in his glass cage, and so is a member of the Inner Circle in his top hat, posing for digital photos with visitors.
Since I am not one of the lucky 150 with a hotel room, I return to the car, parked behind the funeral home of Bill Deeley, Phil’s official handler. I lower the seat and nap till 3am, when the fleet of yellow school buses begin shuttling spectators to Gobbler’s Knob. I get on the first bus. The Knob is a natural amphitheater where the ground slopes toward the stage. I position myself stageside by the artificial stump, with its fairytale-like doors, in which Phil purportedly hibernates. Although it is mild and I am wearing six layers on top and three on bottom, my running shoes transfer the cold through my entire body. I am colder standing here in 20ºF than I am sledding across the Arctic at –40º. Little wonder that the Punxsutawney hospital routinely treats victims of hypothermia on Groundhog Day.
The crowd builds steadily. A lot of students: Colleges surround Punxsutawney. Many in the crowd carry signs: “Phil, will you marry me?” or “Ben, what time is it?” referring to the top-hatted timekeeper with a giant alarm clock around his neck. With the lack of accommodation, most have driven here overnight from nearby states and counties, but they also flock here from all over North America. Some come every year. Others are celebrating their birthday. Incredibly, a few have come to get married. A member of the Inner Circle will preside at the ceremony.
By six am, twenty thousand have gathered. As far as I know, an event of this magnitude at 7:30 am is unique. A young woman from France comments to me, not unsympathetically, how only Americans can be so passionate about frivolous events.
The governor of Pennsylvania himself shows up, a first. Fireworks, speeches, God Bless America – then Phil’s handler, Bill Deeley, steps forward and ceremoniously raps three times on Phil’s stump. Then he opens the door and lifts Phil out. Phil does not bite his finger or take a whizz, as he has some years. Grandiloquently, Deeley recites some poetry-gibberish. The gist is that Phil has seen his shadow and there will be six more weeks of winter. All but the skiers in the crowd groan loudly.
Phil’s pronunciamento is not surprising: In 118 years, he has forecast an early spring just 14 times. Although his promoters credit him with a hundred percent accuracy, a recent study by the Chicago Tribune puts him at just thirty-nine percent. Several less-famous groundhogs, subjected to less scrutiny, have better records.
The party quickly breaks up. The photographers, with whom I’ve been standing, run to download their images to their laptops and e-mail them to their editors. The governor stands around, somewhat a forgotten man, and I chat with him a bit. A nearby photographer, who earlier did not seem to know how his fancy equipment worked, stands poised to tackle me if I make a wrong move.
Truth to tell, I am almost too cold to make any move at all. But with the standing done, my circulation slowly returns. I briskly walk the two miles back to town to warm up, stopping for breakfast at Joe’s Drive-In. Outside in the parking lot stands the world’s largest (and tackiest) groundhog statue. I order two cups of hot chocolate and a surprisingly inexpensive plate of French toast. When it comes, I see why: the toast looks like little chicken fingers. The taste is memorable and forgettable at the same time. It is a perfect end to my Groundhog Day, but I am grateful that this particular meal does not repeat itself over and over again in a time loop.
Back to WRITING
All words and images ©2008-11 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.