I’m imagining some fat, brown, furry rodent, all snug and cuddled in its warm little burrow, curled into a comfy circle of slumber. Then an entourage of persons wearing top hats arrive with pomp and ceremony, dig the poor fellow out of his hole, and proclaim across the news whether or not the unsuspecting creature has seen its shadow.
The sun is shining! Oh dear, six more weeks of winter!
Considering last year’s weather patterns, when an 18-inch snow dump pummeled the farm in mid-May, this sounds like we’d be getting off easy. Let’s see, six weeks would take us not even to the end of March. Does this sound terribly plausible, given this frigid and snowy winter? I’m not holding my breath. Besides, did anyone actually ask the groundhog if he had bothered to look at his shadow?
Equally, it could have been noticed by any the ceremonial folks in top hats that the trees, the cars, or they themselves were casting shadows, and there was hardly any need to bother a sleepy, rotund rodent with the whole affair. What did it matter to the groundhog? If they’re anything like the wood chucks that used to sit all fat and sassy in the barn door, they’re smart enough to come out when spring has officially arrived all on their own, without any particular human meteorological proclamation. And in the meantime, they know exactly where you store your feed…
But winter isn’t entirely a season for moaning and groaning about how long we have to go before the earth warms, the snow melts, and the grass needs mowing again. Personally, I’m enjoying every day that chicken chores do not include being attacked by a perilous swarm of mosquitoes, awaiting wood ticks, or biting gnats! It’s the little things like this that sometimes become forgotten in the endless hours of shoveling.
But if you’re still stuck in a mood of doom and gloom over the groundhog’s shadow-seeing exploits, here’s a folk tale about animals in wintertime to bring a bit of cheer.
How Bear Got His Short Tail
Of course, there are lots of stories about Bear. That’s because Bear was really rather vain. Everywhere he went, Bear was showing off his big, long, bushy, black tail. “See!” demanded Bear. “Don’t you like my tail?!”
The other animals cowered away, nodding, “Oh yes, Mr. Bear, we love your tail. It’s the best tail in the whole forest.” That’s because they knew that brother Bear would get very angry if they didn’t agree, no matter what their personal opinion on tails might be.
But Fox had had quite enough of Bear’s antics. She too had a long, bushy tail, all sleek and curving with a white tip. Of course, hers was really the best tail of all, but there was no telling that to Bear. One of these days, he was going to need to learn his lesson for being so prideful.
It was wintertime when Fox made her plan. Down to the lake she went with rod and reel, and after cutting a hole in the ice of the lake, she fished most of the morning. She fished and fished and fished until she had a whole stringerful of graceful, sleek northern and perch and walleye. Stashing her tackle, she sauntered back up the bank of the lake, humming a pleasing tune to herself.
Bear just happened to be passing by, and the pungent smell of fresh fish caught his attention. “Fox, say Fox, how did you get all those lovely fish, I say?”
“With my tail,” she grinned, blinking her long, foxy lashes.
“With your tail?” Bear’s lips were dripping. Those fish looked so delicious. With great force of self-will, he just barely held back from swiping the whole lot away from Fox.
She dangled the stringer, teasingly. “It’s easy, really. I’m surprised at you, Bear, what with your long and illustrious tail, that you don’t already know how to fish this way.”
“Um, uh, well…” Bear was trying to hide his ignorance on the subject. “Maybe you could remind me. I’m sure it’s just the winter sleepiness that has made the trick slip my mind.”
“Well,” Fox began, speaking low so as not to spoil the secret on other small ears in the forest. “Take that big claw of yours and cut a nice hole in the ice, big enough so your tail can fit through. Then slip your tail down in that hole and wiggle just the tip, real gentle. The fish will think it’s bait, and they’ll bite your tail. It will hurt just a little bit, but when you feel them biting, pull out your tail, and you’ll have a fish!”
Bear was so excited, he didn’t even bother to thank Fox. Down the banks of the lake he tumbled, until his big, black form skidded out onto the ice. “Ha ha!” he chuckled to himself. How silly of Fox to give away her fishing secrets. If Fox could catch a stringer full of fish in just a morning, why, he would work all day and catch twice as many—no three times as many fish as she! Why, with his wondrous tail (the best in the whole forest), how could the fish resist?
He took that big claw of his and cut a circle in the ice, just as Fox had said, then sidled backwards and dropped that big, black tail into the hole. The water was COLD, oh it was COLD! But Bear gritted his teeth and twitched that tail ever so gentle. “Ouch!” he yelped, then covered his mouth, for he mustn’t spoil this new secret he had learned. That must have been a fish bite. Should he pull his tail out now? No! He should wait for another one—ouch—and another one—ouch—and another one. Surely, if he just waited long enough, his entire tail would be covered in fish, and he’d have them all to eat at once! The thought pleased Bear very much indeed.
But when Bear finally decided the pull in the catch, he found himself stuck. That tail wouldn’t come out! He pulled and tugged and pulled and tugged. Surely, this must be a lot of fish indeed! They must be plugging up the hole in the ice and not coming through! Straining even harder, Bear tried one last time and them, POP, found himself face-first in a snowbank.
All the forest animals began to howl with laughter because Fox had told them to come to the edge of the woods and see. And when Bear looked behind him, instead of finding the ice covered in fresh fish, there was his tail, frozen solid into the lake.
Horrified with embarrassment over the loss of his tail and being so foolishly taken by Fox’s story, Bear ran deep into the woods to hide. And that is how Bear got his short tail. But remember not to ask Bear to share this story because he still hides in shame each winter in remembrance of the day Fox tricked him so.
Oh groundhog, stay in the warm little burrow and wait until spring. We humans, in the meantime, will keep on shoveling and telling stories about our wild animal friends. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com