Punxsutawney Phil: takes us home

Columnist : Albert Paschall

  If Hell is cold, then Pennsylvanians know what it feels like.  Since November we’ve endured one of the coldest winters in our history making us more ready than ever for the prediction of the “seer of seers,” “the prognosticator of prognosticators” and the “weather prophet without peer.”  Our frozen hearts turn to western Pennsylvania hoping that a 30-pound rodent doesn’t let us down next week.  If ground hog Punxsutawney Phil has a cloudy day tradition holds that winter is over.  If the sun should shine on Phil when he crawls out of his underground cavern casting his two foot shadow then get ready for another 6 weeks of the deep freeze.
The tradition of Punxsutawney’s famous cave dweller grew out of a newspaper publisher’s account of a ground hog hunt and barbecue in 1887.  Clymer Freas institutionalized the forecasting abilities of this second
cousin to a rat in his Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper.  While national competition has sprung up around the furry forecaster, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is where the nation’s eyes officially turn on February 2nd in
what has got to be the most ingenious, accidental, public relations ploy in history.  For 114 years now tiny Punxsutawney borough’s 6800 citizens rally around the renowned rodent.  From the Chamber of Commerce to the Rotary Club Phil is the centerpiece of the community from the first week of February and for tourists the rest of the year.
Phil means business.  Since being idolized on the big screen by comedian Bill Murray in ’93 more than 30,000 visitors flock to western Pennsylvania just to see the cold February sunrise.  A celebration of a community tradition unlike any other in the world.
I shouldn’t really complain about winter.  Just like Phil I can hibernate in my electronic cottage and come out when I want to.  The computer in my den can research just about anything including clairvoyant rodents.  It receives mail and even pays my bills without a trip to the mailbox.  It can even feed me.  Just e-mail the local pizza joint with a credit card number and dinner is at the door without the day to day intrusion of humanity.
The concept of the electronic cottage was first advanced in 1980 by author Alvin Toffler.  In “The Third Wave” Toffler predicted telecommuters, people linked by computers in their home, working together in electronic communities before the end of the 20th century.  Toffler’s prediction was a lot more accurate than the groundhog’s.  By the end of last year more than 26 million Americans had subscribed to America On-Line.  Microsoft Network is in second place and their combined numbers say that half the nation is now wired to the world.  But community it’s not.  Like it’s unearthly counterpart the alchemy of ethernet running through silicon chips over a phone line has created a cold dark void in cyberspace.  It connects the globe admirably but
does its isolation potentially disconnect us from the world that begins at our front door?  Does the global electronic village threaten our real villages – the touchstones of community– that have been our tradition since
the first town hall meetings 270 years ago?  If that happens who will ultimately navigate spaceship earth?
Retired Pennsylvania newspaper publisher William Strasburg and Montgomery County Community College professor James P. Cooney raise these questions in a new book. “In search of community: reversing the course of a nation in conflict” Strasburg and Cooney touch the fabric of community involvement in American history then prescribe theories to resist the isolation and even destruction from the shadows of technology that threaten
our traditions of engaged involvement in our communities, especially the spirit of volunteerism.  As we surge toward a world community they write: “if we as individuals fail to act then our local communities won’t work…and the global community becomes nothing more than a pipe dream, a political rallying
The authors seem to be saying that in the constancy of the 24/7 information age our traditions of human interaction for its own sake are at risk.  And when that all too human structure diminishes we lose that part of
our society that we call civility.  Sure the local Rotary or Optimist club could raise a few bucks for a worthwhile cause by soliciting the whole town with an e-mail appeal but holding a charity auction brings people working
together for a common purpose, a common destiny – a sense of community.  If the clubs take the e-way out and skips the weekly meetings, the interaction then the civility and the fun that is part and parcel of the organizations will disappear.
In 1887 it’s doubtful that Clymer Freas thought that his account of a groundhog barbecue on the Punxsutawney Spirit’s front page was starting a tradition that would rally a community around a rodent once a year.  He never dreamed that ground hog day would be recognized all over America.  He never thought that in a new millennium Punxsutawney Phil would challenge every trend of the age, yet it does.
Taken as it is, Groundhog Day is silly.  It makes no sense even though Phil is a bit more accurate than his TV counter parts.  Taken as a tradition of community, celebrated now for 3 generations and hopefully forevermore, Phil takes on new meaning.  He is the prescription that Strasburg and Cooney subscribe.  Punxsutawney and Phil are community at work.  In their example they demand that we step out of our own shadows and work to secure the fabric of our communities and have fun doing it.  Lacking that element of commitment isolated from the fun of it we risk being anesthetized in the isolation of ourselves.  Though technology serves us well someday we might realize that electronic isolation can sacrifice a sense of who we and our neighbors are.  Regaining that perspective brings us out of the shadows of ourselves going full circle back to our real communities.  In that way the tradition of Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil takes us back from where we came.