Fall has come and almost gone, and as much as I have always considered it one of my favorite seasons, this year was different.
As I marveled at the leaf colors and felt invigorated by the crispness of the air, I was aware of an apprehension dampening my enjoyment. Many of you may be experiencing that apprehension also as winter gets near.
Last winter and spring, the weather was unexpectedly damaging to our region, and as we move into the winter months, we can only hope that we don't experience a repeat of last year. Not knowing what to expect may make us nervous.
Societies have always made attempts to forecast the coming winter's weather. Long before we had meteorologists with sophisticated technology to help, we observed animals and nature to give us clues as to what we could expect. The most legendary predictor may well be the woolly bear caterpillar.
I'm sure you are all familiar with this bristly, banded, black and reddish-brown fellow. At this time of year, the woolly bears are out in great numbers in search of a place to spend the winter: under leaves, bark or in crevices of rocks or logs. The woolly bear has 13 hairy body segments, and folklore has it that the wider the middle section of reddish-brown segments, the milder the coming winter will be. A narrow band is said to predict a harsh winter.
It is noted that one brood of eggs can produce woolly bears with a wide variety of markings. The width of the band is more an indication of how close to full growth the caterpillar is.
According to the Farmer's Almanac, there actually may be a link between the width of the woolly bear's stripe and the weather. Evidence suggests that the number of reddish-brown hairs on the woolly bear is indicative of the age of the caterpillar and how near it is to full growth.
The more brownish hairs, the earlier growth started; the earlier growth started, the earlier the warm weather began; the earlier the warm weather, the shorter the winter — the previous winter, not the coming one!
PIGS, MOLES, MORE
Other animals that have made it into folklore for their weather-predicting skills are pigs and moles. "When pigs gather leaves and straw in all, expect a cold winter." For moles, the tale goes: "If the mole digs its hole 2½-feet deep, expect severe weather; if 2 feet deep, not so severe; if 1 foot deep, a mild winter."
Legend has it that when rabbits are fat in October and November, a long, cold winter can be expected.
And, of course, the number of nuts the squirrel gathers indicates the length of the winter to come.
Although it may seem logical (at least to me) that caterpillars would get hairier, squirrels would put aside more provisions, rabbits would pack on the pounds and moles would go deeper underground to stay warm, I suspect it's our desire to know what to expect from winter that fuels these legends.
I, myself, put faith in my grandfather, who predicted the winter with exactly the same phrase each fall: "This winter we'll get what we'll get."
Grandpa was never wrong!
Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program assistant for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or email@example.com.