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Going "By the Signs"

Going “By the Signs”
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GOING “BY THE SIGNS” has always been a popular method of individual weather forecasting here in New England, other than simply hearing the weather on radio and television. The signs are everywhere, particularly beginning this month and extending through the fall, and they do seem to have some significance in the overall weather scheme of things. But interpreting them is something else.

For example, if, in a given fall, a group of wasps build their nest very high off the ground, then we’re apt to expect a heavy, snowy winter. The wasps, we figure, don’t wish to have their nest buried by all the snow they know will be coming. On the other hand, if the wasps build their nest low to the ground, some of us will also expect a heavy, snowy, cold winter. Wasps may well be aware of the insulating value of snow and may therefore instinctively want their nest located down in it for that purpose. No doubt, most wasps know what they’re doing, but …

The number of nuts gathered by squirrels in the fall is another commonly used winter indicator. Many nuts, tough winter. The problem, of course, has always been to count the nuts gathered by an individual squirrel and to judge that amount in comparison with the number of nuts gathered by the same squirrel during the previous fall. Latch onto a lazy or sick squirrel in either year, for instance, and the entire forecast is skewed.

On my television appearances each fall when I’m interviewed about the current edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac (the 2007 edition will come out the 12th of this month), I used to carry around a woolly worm in a jar. Now, I should add here that I don’t really believe, as some do, that the width of the woolly worm’s two black stripes indicates the severity of the beginning and end of winter. Nor do I think the area between the stripes has anything to do with midwinter weather. It doesn’t make sense — for the woolly worm or for anybody. And most signs of nature do make some sort of subtle sense. (As for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has always gone to press in the early summer, long before the “signs” of winter appear, we base our annual forecasts on the cycles of the sun.)

Nonetheless, I used to carry along my woolly worm in a jar because that’s the sort of thing the television people wanted on their shows. Anyway, the woolly worm, or woolly bear, is an interesting little creature (the only worm I know about that actually hibernates for the winter, just like a bear) with centuries of winter-forecasting tradition associated with it. It’s also good company. One year, my woolly worm’s name was Garth. Garth and I appeared on over a dozen television shows in various cities across the country. What the television producers, interviewers, audiences, and I didn’t realize was that Garth was dead. Died somewhere along the line and I sincerely thought he’d merely begun to hibernate.

I made the discovery during a morning television show in Cleveland. Seems my host wanted to actually examine Garth on camera. So I removed his inert little form from the leaves inside the jar and placed him on the desk of said host, who then proceeded to poke him with his pen — hoping he’d move, I suppose — at which point Garth broke in half. He was dry as a bone. He must’ve been dead for nearly a week.

I was very embarrassed. But, of course, with weather forecasting, you have to expect the unexpected.

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Going "By the Signs"

Updated Friday, September 1st, 2006

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