Autumn Forecasting: Reading the Omens

Autumn Forecasting: Reading the Omens September 2, 2015


This is an excerpt from the wonderful book A Witch’s Season: Autumn by one of my very favorite Witches, Karen Albeck. Karen and I have been friends since Old Shep’s grandfather was a pup and this fantastic series of books is one I would like to share with you. Below is her discussion of Autumn omens:

People love to find omens in things. I’m not talking about how the band on the woolly bear caterpillar is wider if winter is going to be harsh (or maybe it’s mild – I can never remember.) I mean when someone will see four crows flying together at the same time every day, gathering in the same tree in the morning and in the evening, and they’ll search for some mysterious meaning in this event.

The problem is that, in order to read omens in the natural world, you have to have an intimate knowledge of what the natural world is about. Those four crows are behaving perfectly naturally for crows – they get together in the morning for coffee and strudel, and at the end of the day to discuss what they’ve seen. A bird in the house doesn’t mean someone is going to die; it means you left a window open.

Knowing what weather to expect was and is vitally important to farmers. They can’t cut hay if it won’t have a couple days to dry, and they don’t want to plant corn if the following week is going to be solid rain, because the kernels will rot rather than sprout. Particularly as you go farther north, it’s important to get the benefit of every last ray of sunshine, but still harvest before the killing frost.

(While we’re on the topic of “killing frost”, that old song about the horse named, I believe, Wild Fire, that was doing perfectly well until one night a killing frost spelt doom for both the horse and the rider. This is just silliness. “Killing frost” refers to fatal circumstances for annuals and tender perennials. Horses are perfectly fine, although humans might want a light jacket.)

Anyway, back to being able to forecast the weather. Before the days of meteorology, humans looked for any hint possible to give them some clue as to what to expect. The following are some older-than-time forecasting methods used by the people in the Appalachians, taken from The Foxfire Book:

Forecasting a coming bad winter by animals:

• squirrels begin gathering nuts early

• squirrels’ tails are bushier than usual

• cows’ hooves break off earlier

• the north side of a beaver dam has more sticks than the southern, or there are more logs in general used in it

• birds eat up all the berries

• you hear an “old hoot owl on the mountain, winter’s comin’ soon – better put on your boots”— Kenny Runion

Forecasting a bad winter by insects:

• miller moths hit the screen trying to get in

• there are crickets in the chimney

• hornets and yellow jackets build their nests heavier and closer to the ground than usual

• you see woolly bear caterpillars crawling before the first frost

• there are a lot more woolly bears than usual

• if butterflies migrate early, winter will be early

• the first killing frost will come three months after the first katydid is heard

Forecasting a bad winter by plants:

• carrots grow deeper

• grapes and apples mature early

• sweet potatoes have a tougher skin

• trees are laden with green leaves late into the fall

• hickory nuts have a heavy shell

• leaves shed before they turn

• pine cones open early

• the darker green the grass is in summer, the harder the winter

Forecasting winter by weather:

• a late frost means a bad winter

• if it snows “cross-legged” (meaning blown about by wind, coming from all directions at once), it will be a deep snow

• the hotter the summer, the colder the winter

Forecasting winter by the moon:

• the number of days old the moon is at the first snow tells how many snows there will be that winter

Forecasting weather in general:

• it will rain within 3 days if the horns of the moon point down

• if the cows are lying down in the pasture, it will rain soon

• it will rain if smoke goes to the ground

• if it hasn’t rained in a long time and begins before 7:00 a.m, it’ll quit before 11:00 a.m.

• The twelve days after Christmas tell what the weather will be like for each of the following twelve months

• the weather will be fair if smoke rises

• the temperature will rise if “the crickets holler”

Do any of these have any basis in science? Well, the ones about the smoke rising or going to the ground would seem to have something to do with air currents, and the old “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning – red sky at night, sailors delight” is more often than not correct because of cloud formation patterns. It’s not clear to me how carrots would “know” to grow deeper or why crickets in the chimney would foretell a bad winter, but who am I to argue with generation upon generation of Appalachian observers?

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