My paternal grandfather, Grandpa Joe, used to say of Earth’s rebirth, “A fellow can’t trust spring. It tends to be mighty ‘fitified.’” A spell of balmy days with temperatures rising into the 70s in the afternoon will give way to cold rain, biting winds, and sometimes even frost or a skiff of snow. But then, truth be told, he had reservations about the predictability or certainty of all seasons. The one thing he did trust was wisdom, accumulated through a lifetime of personal experience along with drawing on that of countless others, about how “signs” foretold the weather.
Old-timers recognized weather’s vagaries and had highly descriptive terms connected with them. For spring, among the ones with which I am most familiar all were linked to winter — Catbird Winter, Dogwood Winter, and Blackberry Winter. Then at other times of the year were Dog Days, Indian Summer, False Winter, and many more.
Most of these terms came from the first-rate observational skills of those who went before us. Weather figured far more prominently in life in yesteryear than it does today, thanks to the dramatically different lifestyles of our forebears. They lived in close harmony with the land and depended on it for existence. Accordingly, the ability to read signs, recognize weather patterns, and move in rhythm with the good Earth was vital to their existence.
For example, all the types of winter just mentioned actually refer to spells of cold after green up was well underway. According to Grandpa Joe — who had a real knack for predicting the weather by reading signs, observing cloud patterns, and watching animal behavior — Catbird Winter coincided with the earliest springtime appearance of the fussy, interesting, and highly vocal gray bird. Their primary call sounds like the mewing of a cat, hence the name. After migrating to the Deep South or beyond in the winter, catbirds returned to the Carolinas during April for mating. When Grandpa sighted the first one he would comment, “Look for a cold spell in the next week or so because we’re in for a spell of Catbird Winter.”
Catbird Winter always seemed to me to come more or less simultaneously with Dogwood Winter since the avian migrants normally arrived about the time dogwoods were in full flower. Grandpa, however, would have none of that, insisting these were two distinct cold snaps. Whatever the case, predictably year after year would come some chilly weather, often accompanied by a light frost or sometimes a heavy one, when dogwood blooms were at their peak.
Blackberry Winter is the most frequently mentioned of the three springtime periods of cold as well as being the latest. Often it seems that winter has its final fling, a last chilly goodbye before May’s magic spreads its warm, soothing spell across the land. It falls when blackberries reach the stage where blooms begin to show white. Once blackberries had bloomed in association with two or three days of cold Grandpa always felt comfortable setting out tomatoes and other plants susceptible to frost. “I’ve known it to frost once or twice in my life after Blackberry Winter,” he would say, “but a body can feel pretty comfortable putting out tender stuff once that cold snap has come and gone.”
Additional colloquial terms are used for periods of unseasonable cold in the spring, including Locust Winter and Redbud Winter. All seem peculiar to the South, but other sections of the country have delightful descriptions as well. Perhaps my favorite, one I’ve heard several times over the years while turkey hunting in Missouri or Iowa, is “Long Handles Winter.” Folks there use that term to suggest that once that particular cold spell has passed, the trusty old union suit can be put away until once more needed in late fall.
Like so many other aspects of traditional lore connected with those living close to the land, weather wisdom increasingly belongs to a world we have lost. As we become more urbanized, more dependent on meteorologists rather than personal observations, and do far less gardening and farming, our sense of connection with the Earth’s seasonal rhythms lessens. Maybe that’s why Grandpa Joe, who never drove a car and viewed any and all things modern with skepticism, often commented, “I don’t hold much with this here progress folks are always talking about.”
Grandpa Joe was a great one for heeding what he simply called “signs.” He faithfully adhered to the signs for all his planting and harvesting and was sufficiently superstitious to see all sorts of ominous portents anytime something unusual happened. He reckoned blue jays were minions of Satan, saying that when these fussy, aggressive birds raised a ruckus they were speaking on behalf of or reporting to the Devil. Always a bit paranoid and closely attuned to things he considered evil, Grandpa suggested that when it rained while the sun was shining witches were dancing and cavorting.
Folks I knew as a youngster harbored countless other quirks of behavior related to superstitions and signs, but nothing garnered closer attention or was considered of greater importance than “reading the signs” as they related to weather. Lacking slick-talking weather prognoticators with all sorts of gimmickry to illustrate and support their forecasts, folks made their own judgments about what the future held in store weather-wise. I won’t suggest the signs they read were infallible, but those who followed them had trained and learned through long experience and close observation.
After all, ability to read and heed signs was vitally important when it came to matters as varied as when to put crops in the ground, split fence rails, or work up firewood, not to mention having a firm grasp on winter needs, such as adequate hay for the family milk cow or sufficient wood and kindling for fires. In certain situations, such knowledge could literally be a matter of life and death.
Because of the potential distress or even dangers they posed, cold and snow formed dominant themes in traditional weather lore. Old-timers would look heavenward at layered rows of gray, scudding clouds on a bitter day and refer to them as snow clouds. Several times during my boyhood I was out rabbit hunting when a bluebird sky in early morning rapidly yielded to such clouds. Whenever this happened one of the older members of the party would make a comment to the effect that:
Clouding up when there’s frost and sparkling sun;
Means rough weather before the day is done.
Another common bit of doggerel associated with this type of weather was the couplet:
Mackerel skies and mare’s tails;
Make wise seamen set short sails.
Being far from the sea was beside the point. The concept of bad weather connected with such cloud patterns was the point.
An even more reliable sign of snow and bitter weather came with animal behavior. Somehow animals, both domestic and wild, have an innate sense of sudden, dramatic changes in the weather. On some of the same rabbit hunts that produced the above-mentioned weather pronouncements, highly unusual developments occurred in the middle of the day. Well into the hunt and long after cottontails had ceased the nocturnal feeding, which is standard for them during winter, our pack of beagles would strike a hot trail — one that left no doubt that a rabbit had recently passed that way. That was strange behavior for cottontails since during winter they normally hold tight to their “beds” or “hides” until dusk. Grandpa and Daddy both explained the behavior by saying, “They know a snow’s on the way.” Sure enough, on every occasion when this happened, snow was pouring by late afternoon.
Countless other examples of forecasting snow or bitter cold, whether in a short, specific time frame or for an entire winter, come to mind. One old, oft-used couplet suggested:
Snow lingering on the ground;
It’s waiting for more to come around.
A cross-legged snow, one that saw wind-tossed flakes falling in different directions and crossing each other in the sky, foretold another snow in the next day or two. Similarly, listening to an open fire was considered a fine way of forecasting winter weather. When logs made a swishing noise resembling the sounds produced by walking through soft snow, it augured frozen precipitation. A flock of chickens also could do a first-rate job of forecasting by going to roost far before dusk. Sun dogs, a curious luminescence around the sun, were also deemed an indicator of coming hard weather.
Every fall in today’s world, newspaper prognosticators and self-ordained weather prophets make much to do about how the coloration of caterpillars or the width of their bands foretells what lies ahead. One couplet connected with them maintains:
When caterpillars’ coats are mostly black,
Winter won’t cut you any slack.
Yet in my experience winter holds to other, more reliable indexes. Grandpa Joe swore by the thickness of corn shucks, and I’ve found this to be a consistently accurate gauge.
Shucks on corn extra thick;
Look for cold winter coming quick.
The same holds true for onions.
Onion skins very thin, mild winter coming in.
Onion skins thick and tough, coming winter cold and rough.
Similarly, if squirrels seem inordinately busy in their nut-gathering and nut-burying activities or if they build noticeably larger nests than normal, expect bitter weather and lots of it.
Along with summer and fall observations related to what winter might hold, the season itself offered various short-term indexes to impending weather. Among widely held beliefs were that weather for each of the 12 days between Christmas and January 6, known as the Ruling Days, offered insight on how months of the coming year would be. Likewise, if the sun shone on Candlemas Day, today known as Groundhog Day, you could expect much more snow and ice before winter ended. The snowiest day of the year was supposedly Dorothea’s Day Feb. 6. You still hear snow described as “poor man’s fertilizer,” suggestions that “April snow is as good as cow manure,” and the belief that “much snow means much hay.” A traditional couplet connected with snow and what it meant for the coming year on the farm maintained that:
When there’s lots of snow,
A fruitful crop will often grow.
Considerable truth is present in these statements connected with the benefits snow held for agriculture. Snow soaks gradually into the ground in sharp contrast to the runoff from heavy rain, and it also picks up trace elements in the air and deposits them on Earth to nourish the soil.
As the liberal use of them already implies, a great many of the old weather “sayings” are rhythmic couplets. Remembering information was made easier by use of rhyme. Here is a small sampling from those I heard as a lad:
When the wind’s in the south,
It has snow in its mouth.
When the ground is dry at morning light,
Expect snow or rain before the night.
When heavy frost is on the grass,
Snow seldom comes to pass.
The higher the clouds, the finer the weather;
No clouds at all, that’s even better.
Clear, cold moon;
Frost coming soon.
Smoke goes west, good weather’s past;
Smoke goes east, bad weather’s next.
When an old man’s joints ache;
Cold, rainy weather is at stake.
Birds active and flying low,
Beware of a coming snow.
When clouds hang heavy on the hills,
Expect coming rain and chills.
A ring circling round the moon,
Means rain or snow coming soon.
When the moon carries a halo,
It’s a sure sign of coming snow.
When dimmer stars disappear,
Rain or snow is quite near.
When clouds move against the wind,
Rain or snow is around the bend.
When it is hard to kindle a fire,
That’s a sign of weather dire.
If Candlemas be fair and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.
A winter filled with sounds of thunder,
Sends a message of summer hunger.
Trees holding their leaves extra long,
Look for winter to be extra strong.
When hornets build their nests extra high;
Look for snow nearing your thigh.
Our ancestors of necessity paid careful, ongoing attention to the world of nature in which they lived and that in turn gave them life. Today, thanks to generations of worship at the altar of that often false god known as progress, we have lost much of our linkage with the natural world. While that is saddening, somehow thinking about the observations of weather folklore our forefathers practiced is gladdening.