Weather Prognostication the Old Fashioned Way

By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Weather is the barometer by which humankind revolves and Ozarkers talk about the weather the way stock brokers talk about share prices.  In nearly every conversation, the weather is often the opening topic and over the years, I have come to believe that the official greeting of the Ozarks is, “How’s the weather over ’t your place?”  Like people everywhere, Ozarkers love to grumble about “bad” weather, but usually they do it with humility and humor.

Because the weather in the Ozarks is so impulsive, the people who live here have been forced to take to prognosticating the weather in equally capricious ways. One of the more unscientific methods is based on an obscure system of “payback”.  For example, if we receive too much fine, clear weather it is almost certain that we will be paid back with a violent, flooding storm.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a couple of farmers at the feed store.  One rather assuredly announced that the coming winter would be “…a bad one.”  In this case, the term “bad” meant wet, because, of course, we were going to be paid back for all the dry weather we have suffered through already.  The other ol’ boy agreed, saying  that the winter would be a “bad ‘n, seein’ as how we ‘er due for one, and all.”   Of course, when you’re in a drought a “bad” winter is good.

I find these methods of prediction not only charming, but often quite accurate.  When you live as close to the land as many rural Ozarkers do, a notion of how things are just come naturally.

Many of the first settlers to the Ozarks were of Scots-Irish descent and knew a thing or two about living off the land and hardship.  They had already risked their lives on a long arduous journey to America only to set off once again into an unknown and treacherous wilderness with little more than a dream and the clothes on their backs.  But the beautiful landscape of the Ozarks disguised the perils awaiting new settlers. The deceptive lushness of the area quickly turned into little understood natural phenomenon, difficult passage over rugged terrain, rock-studded soil in which to farm and wildly unpredictable seasons.

These folks had to learn quickly if they were to survive in these hills and one of the most important skills they needed was the ability to predict the weather.  They had to learn when the best time for planting and harvesting crops were and when to gathering edible and medicinal plants.  They needed to know when the time was right to hunt and cure game, to tan skins or render fat.  Everything they did depended on the weather.

It’s hard us to imagine a world without cell phones, computers, TV’s, radios and cars, but these people had no way to quickly communicate with the outside world. They didn’t have the Weather Channel, Doppler radar, or an emergency alert radio or cell phone app to find out what kind of weather to expect.  They had to rely entirely on their knowledge of the wind and the clouds and use their keen senses to look for signs of change.

Many of the old proverbs such as, “The higher the clouds, the finer the weather.”, “Red sky at night; a sailor’s delight.” or “Clear moon, frost soon” have been passed from generation to generation and have their basis in scientific observation.

But not everyone looked at the sky.

Sometimes, when people longed to see farther into the future than the day’s clouds could tell, they found more creative ways to predict the weather.  Some looked down wells or into the patterns of tea leaves, coffee grounds or bones tossed on a table and some studied the twists and turns of the guts of  just-butchered livestock.

Today, we celebrate Groundhog Day, which is just another old-fashioned way to predict the end of winter.   Foul weather is often told by ants suddenly moving their nests to higher ground, leaves turning upside down or a rise in the water level of a well or cistern.  Some say that every fog in summer equals a snow in winter and when swallows fly high there will be no rain.

A cold winter is said to be preceded by an abundance of ants, spiders and caterpillars moving about in the fall, or by squirrels caching excessive amounts of acorns, birds migrating early and livestock with exceptionally heavy coats.  Here in the Ozarks, people believe that if the reddish-brown band in the center of a wooly bear caterpillar is longer than the two black bands at either end, a mild winter is in store.  The narrower the brown band, the harsher the weather.

Among the many old-time prognosticating techniques, my favorite is the ubiquitous persimmon pit.  When the persimmons are ripe (just after the first fall frost) the seeds are extracted from the sweet pulp and split in half lengthwise.  At their heart is a small creamy white spot that is said to resemble one of three shapes: a spoon, a knife, or a fork.  A knife-shape indicates that winter will be sharply cold and windy, while the spoon-shape predicts snow and rain (read “shovel”).  The fork-shape is supposed to indicate a mild winter with either light snow or rain.

This fall, I will try to test as many old-timey winter weather prognosticating techniques as possible – and hope above all hope that this year will be a “bad” one.

Seein’ as how we’re due for one, and all.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2012  Jill Henderson

Excerpted in part from

A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor,

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8 responses to “Weather Prognostication the Old Fashioned Way

  1. My husband laughs at my weather predictions – but the old timers had something – many of those old wives tales have some truth to them! Thanks for an entertaining and interesting read- K

  2. Since Fall is my favorite time of year I wouldn’t be unhappy if it began right now and lasted into December. Then we can have 10 weeks of winter before Spring “springs”. It’s why we moved here, after all!

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