Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
I flatter myself to think you might remember that for several Januaries past I've done some tall moaning and groaning in this space about how this is the worst month of the year. Far and away. Without a close rival. August is the second worst, I reckon, but only in the sense that Twice a Prince ran second to Secretariat in the Belmont. I know August, Sen. Quayle, and August is no January.
But this year, in keeping with a resolution I made at the dawn of the month, I foolishly determined in 2012 to accentuate the positive, and January does have a few plusses to go with its abundance of minuses.
Its silver sunshine looks mighty good on the white-oak trees. The yellow broomsedge hides old dead pastures beneath amber waves as small as puddles and as big as lakes. You can walk in the woods without worrying about stepping on a snake. There are farkleberries. There are eagles. The cold wind coming down over the mountains is always clean, bluing the sky and stirring a kind of racial nostalgia for the Ice Age, when the glaciers pushed around our ancestors like so much moraine.
Driving the icy roads infuses a nice little change-of-pace outing with considerable suspense.
You don't do a lot of sweating in January so you can take a bath less often than the usual once a week. There's not as much street crime. It keeps all the big cats away, except for the snow leopards, and we never had much of a problem with them anyway.
It's so somber a month that you can go ahead with your solemn ceremonies like the Boy Martyr memorial without great concern that there'll be disruptive laughter from disrespectful wags along the parade route. Wags stay indoors in January boning up on their mots.
Here in Bug Tussle on the first sunny day around the end of January we have a tradition in which a critter emerges from its wintertime hidey hole to look for its lost shadow. That critter in Pennsylvania folklore is the groundhog; here it's not. Here it isn't the groundhog, or the hedgehog, or the wild boar, or the spirit of Wilbur, or the namesake of Hogwarts, or Boss Hogg or Bobby Petrino. Here it's the dog-peter gnat.
And here all the townspeople gather around the community's biggest-petered dog on the appointed day waiting for the legendary gnat to appear and assume its familiar circular flight path. We pass the time making bets on whether it will see its shadow if it does appear. And making further bets on what it means if it does see its shadow or if it doesn't.
We all try our hand at being a gnatpex, like the auspex or the haruspex of the olden days. Or most of us try our hand at it. Some just draw the shades and turn up the TV, believing that this whole dog-peter gnat business is just provincial hooey, tasteless, vulgar, and embarrassing.
Nobody knows where dog-peter gnats spend the winter. They might seal themselves up in tiny cocoons that are spun by their womenfolk or by trolls. They might hitch a ride with bears into designated hibernation caves. They might hide under the wings or in the toejam of certain of the locusts and cicadas and find themselves buried alive as their hosts settle in for those underground siestas that last for 17 years.
Or they might transmogrify back to the larval stage and attach themselves with homemade Gorilla glue to the backside of poison-ivy leaves to wait in dry dormancy for the April sun to pop them back into fully adult dog-peter gnattery. Or they might simply lay their eggs and croak, leaving it to the next dog-peter gnat generation to torment Phydeaux for no reason that any of the higher fauna can see, meaning those that have at least one cell of brain and a single lick of sense.
But those are just guesses. Nobody knows for sure. Nobody knows anything for sure about dog-peter gnats, including why you pronounce something with an "n" that starts with a "g."
It's also uncertain how a dog-peter gnat could see its shadow, even if it were big enough to cast one. Like the elder Oedipus, it has no eyes to see a shadow or anything else with, as far as I can tell, and seems to use its sense of smell to pilot in narrowing circles around the object of its affection. Even its sense of smell may be limited to that one distinctive scent that attracts only lady dogs in season and dog-peter gnats. It probably can't even smell a skunk, or a human's breath after Parmesan cheese.
There was a fistfight last year over what it means if the season's first dog-peter gnat does or doesn't see its shadow. I don't remember how the fight turned out, but I'm fairly certain that it's no omen whether it does or doesn't. It doesn't signify the date and time when the Rapture will rapture. It doesn't tell you whether to bet over or under on the Super Bowl. It doesn't predict who'll win the presidential election. God tells Pat Robertson things like that. Dog-peter gnats don't tell the rest of us diddly.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.