Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Ground squirrel day

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Remember your backyard friends.

Groundhog Day is midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a cross-quarter day. It is St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland and marks the beginning of spring. Feb. 2 is also Candlemas, a Christian Holy Day observed by immigrant Germans who came to Pennsylvania. As the story goes, if the sun came out on Candlemas and a hedgehog saw its shadow, it would snow until May, at least in Germany. Pennsylvania had no hedgehogs. These shrew relatives with spines live in Europe, Africa, Asia. Pennsylvania did have groundhogs, aka woodchucks, members of the squirrel family. With a little creativity and blend of traditions, Groundhog Day was born.

Groundhogs also live in Oklahoma, but over the years at the OKC Zoo, pot-bellied pigs and prairie dogs have served as groundhogs to check out the sun. Since 2017, grizzly bears Will and Wiley lumber outdoors to have a peek. Let’s check out famous Phil in Pennsylvania.

Punxsutawney Phil lives in a climate-controlled environment in the Punxsutawney Library. Before the big day, Phil was relocated to a heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob. Precisely at 7:25 a.m., Phil was brought out into the world and issued his annual prediction in groundhogese, the secret language only spoken by Phil and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle, founded in 1886. They care for and protect the groundhog as well as carry on the tradition. Donned in tuxedos, bow ties and top hats, and the only ones in attendance, the Inner Circle watched as their president gently pulled Phil out of his warm lair.

Each summer the Circle gives Phil the “Elixir of Life.” The super tonic fortifies Phil, increases his youthful appearance and adds seven years to his life. The recipe is a closely guarded secret. Phil publicly announced during Prohibition (1919 to 1933) if he didn’t get his elixir, there would be 60 weeks of winter!

Phil and his “wife” Phyllis are treated as royalty, but when Groundhog Day was first observed in Pennsylvania, quite possibly the groundhog was served up as an entrée after giving the winter forecast. Groundhogs usually live 8 to 10 years in captivity, which tallies up to 13 or more groundhogs since the 1880s. More if several had been eaten. According to the Inner Circle, there has only been one Punxsutawney Phil. Phil is 135 years old.

If Phil sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. How accurate is Phil? Statistics show Phil hits 40% of the time. His Inner Circle handlers insist he is 100% right. Some years the president simply misinterprets Phil.

Phil saw his shadow. Will and Wiley saw their shadows. Have you seen the forecast?

The art of forecasting weather or winter often turns into a gamble. Meteorologists, with help of radars, satellites, balloons, buoys, computer models and no doubt a fuzzy caterpillar tucked away somewhere, struggle with a seven-day forecast. They need Nostradamus, Rasputin or Edgar Cayce, men who saw into the future. Throughout history, a host of seers, mystics and holy men (much fewer women) have bravely issued prognostications.

Lady Julian's Cell

One mystic who lived 700 years ago was Lady Julian of Norwich, England. The fact she was female and her writings have survived makes it even more amazing. Late October 2016, I dragged two people with me on a Lady Julian pilgrimage. We took the train to Norwich. From the station we walked past the medieval Dragon Hall circa early 1400, built with over 1,000 English oak trees and down the narrow lane to St. Julian’s Church and Cell.

St. Julian’s Church sits on one of the oldest church foundations in Norwich. Sweyn from Denmark attacked the city in 1004 and that ancient Saxon building was destroyed. The church was rebuilt in flint, thatched with straw and lasted until it fell into a state of disrepair in the late 18th century. The tower was bombed in a 1942 air raid, fell inward and demolished most the church. The church was again restored in 1953 as a place of prayer and pilgrimage. Lady Julian’s Cell was rebuilt on the original site where she had lived for over 30 years.

Little is known of Julian, if that was her name, except she was born in 1342 and lived a long life. She may have been a widow or nun, but she survived the plague, the Hundred Years War and a deathly illness when she was 30-something years old. On her deathbed during the night, she received 15 visions over several hours and a final vision the next night. She immediately recovered.

At the time Norwich was recouping from the plague. The population had dropped from 30,000 to 5,000. New construction and numerous open spaces spurred city leaders to organize and buy properties for better control over sanitation and water.

While things around her changed, Julian chose to become an anchoress; to be confined to a single cell where she could quietly pray and write. In the Ceremony of Enclosure, attended by friends and church hierarchy, a heavy black robe was placed over her linen dress and black veil over her hair. Julian entered her cell alone. Here she spent the rest of her life, leaving only to walk through the churchyard to mass.

The small cell was attached to the church with an adjoining cell for Julian’s maidservant. Her cell had three windows: one faced outside through which Julian could give spiritual advice and guidance to people, the second for her maidservant to pass through food, supplies and chamber pot, and the third window opened into the church sanctuary.

Julian constantly prayed and meditated on the 16 visions she had received. She wrote down each revelation and tried to grapple with the meaning. Lacking formal education, the anchoress was nevertheless able to express complex ideas and deep emotions. She was the author of the first surviving book in the English language by a woman and anchoress: “The Revelations of Divine Love.” She was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400).

Stained glass of Lady Julian in Norwich Cathedral

Julian’s reconstructed cell had such an atmosphere of peace. Out the corner of my eye I saw a panicky vividly colored butterfly with large eyespots on its wings flitting around the stained-glass window, desperately trying to get out. The European Peacock butterfly. I caught the insect in my gloves and released it outside. The butterfly soared high into the air and out of sight. Julian may have been watching. Who knows?

Heed what Phil, Will and Wiley had to say. The polar vortex is fixing to cut loose from the Arctic and pay us a visit. Coldest air of the year. Bundle up and remember your backyard friends.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at