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Weather forecasters of yesteryear

By Lily Kongslein.
In the spring and summer following our long cold winters, various sayings come to mind. Some I heard from my father and some were common years ago. People lived close to nature when animals, insects, plants and other natural phenomenon were used to predict weather changes.

I often heard my father say, “It is going to be a long hard winter if… the squirrels in the fall have bushy tails and they begin to gather acorns and nuts in the middle of September….if the fall colorama is exceptionally beautiful and colorful….if the summer had been very hot… if the corn silks are thick….if root vegetables grow deeper into the ground than usual…if the caterpillar has an unusually heavy coat (especially the woolly bear, larvae of the tiger moth)…if there is heavier bark on the north side of tree trunks….if there is a thick growth of moss under the tree…if trees begin shedding their leaves while they are still green…if the sumac leaves are redder than usual…and if the summer grass is a deep, deep green.”

It was said that a change was due in the weather when folks’ arthritis hurt more than usual (the older folks were called human hygrometers), when there was a ring around the moon or sun, or the wind suddenly shifted direction. Cirrus clouds also meant warmer temperatures were coming.

As the air pressure fell, it was believed that animals became more active because they were uncomfortable. Signs that rain or storms were on the way included seeing several daddy-long-legged spiders, cows gathering closely together in the pasture, leaves turning backward in the breeze, fish swimming close to the water’s surface, flies buzzing quickly and going in circles, chickens clucking loudly and jumping all around the chicken yard, and frogs croaking constantly.


Other animal signs were that cats and dogs become restless, ducks quack, hens squawk, geese honk, pigs squeal and calves and foals frolic more than usual. Cows bellow more before a shower, and the more they’d swing their tails, the more severe a storm was supposed to be. Pigs scratch their backs on fence posts, dogs and horses sniff the air, the scent of flowers is more pungent, sounds from far away are easier to hear, deer leave high ground and go to lower areas, people with mice in their houses hear more squeaking and scratching in the walls and birds fly erratically and lower than usual. Anglers say fish are harder to catch before a storm because the insects fly lower and fish find easy hunting for meals. Ants build higher mounds before a storm, and some actually close their holes. Butterflies cling to trees and under leaves for protection, bees stay close to their hives, and spiders take their webs down early when it’s going to rain. Silver maples and silver birch magically turn silver before a rain, and deciduous trees turn leaves backward 24-hours before a rain. Daisies, morning glories, tulips and dandelions close their blossoms before a rain.

Here are some things that were said about thunder and lightning: Don’t be near water during a thunderstorm (on our way home from school during a storm, I would always walk in the middle of the road, exactly between the two water-filled ditches). Don’t stand under tall trees. One good thing about lightning, it makes crops grow because the nitrogen formed by the lightning mixing with the rain causes a fall of the necessary nitrogen to the farmers’ fields. Don’t use the telephone during a storm and don’t be caught in the bathtub.
How many times have we said, “red skies at night are a sailor’s delight; red in the morning are a sailor’s warning”?

Before modern insecticides, houses were painted blue and no flies would come around red and yellow glass panes were put in windows of factories where jams and jellies were made, and no flies came around. Today, many people believe that using a yellow fly swatter makes it easier to kill flies. Here’s a tip when going after a fly: aim for a spot slightly behind the fly, as scientists say flies take a step backward when they are ready to take flight.

In New England, the belief was if you carried a horse chestnut in your picket you wouldn’t get rheumatism. My own father wore a copper ring, fashioned out of a copper penny, and he claimed it kept rheumatism away.
In Europe, frogs were captured and watched (called a frog barometer). A tree frog and miniature ladder were put in a jar half-filled with water. If the frog remained in the water and croaked, the weather would be stormy. If the frog climbed the ladder and stayed there, the weather would become fair. If it climbed to the top, rain could be expected and if it swam rapidly, windy conditions were coming.

The TV and radio weather forecasters have taken the place of many of these old superstitions. Meteorologists have a devoted following. We plan our vacations and weekend activities according to the forecasts, yet there was a time when grandfather’s arthritis or seeing a spider or feeling a change in the wind direction was for us, quite a true indication of weather to come!

May we have a beautiful summer!



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