As an unusually mild, rainy summer was melting away or rather frosting its way into autumn, I took to noticing signs that our mountain people have always used to judge the forthcoming severity of winter.
Everywhere, it seemed, I saw those little black and yellow striped, hairy caterpillars that I grew up calling “wooly boogers” but officially known as the banded wooly bear. This being an educational column of sorts, you should know that. You probably call them “wooly boogers,” too. I think of it as a caterpillar that puts on a heavy coat. Mama and Daddy always said that when you see an abundance of those, it’s going to be a cold, hard winter. One farmer, long on years of sweat and toil, said that they are the official weather forecasters around the world.
Then, there were the yellow jackets. Those mean, stinging creatures that have long been the bane for farmers. We’ve all, at one time or the other, taken a licking from those pests when cleaning, mowing or bush hogging, we stirred up their nests. Large swarms of them started to appear and it became evident that they were digging in deep and early to build their nests in the ground.
“When you see swarms like that,” another old farmer said confidently, “it’s going to be a long, hard, cold winter.”
Tink had taken himself to the warmer, sunnier climes of California for a few months of work so he was blissfully ignorant to the early frosts that came and the first hard freeze that appeared several weeks earlier than normal.
“It’s shaping up to be a brutally cold winter,” I told him one morning on the phone in early October.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“Because the signs are showing that.” Then, I explained.
“I better order blankets for the horses,” I said, thinking back to uncomfortable winters that had produced many days of sub-freezing temperatures and the warnings of television forecasters to bring your animals in from the cold.
These kinds of prognostications fascinate him. It is the continuing education of the Southernization of Mr. Tinker as he learns a new world so foreign to the one of his upbringing. (In the North, children are “brought up” while Southern children are “raised up.”) He is intrigued to learn how the earth and its creatures teach, warn or show us.
As we moved forward to preparing the Rondarosa for the cold days ahead, I found myself thinking back to my mountain ancestors and how prognosticating enabled them to survive. Now, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips from the Internet to television to technically sophisticated forecasting but back then all they had were the signs that the good Lord sent and that they cleverly deciphered.
The first hard freeze always meant to them that it was hog-killing weather. They would kill the hog they had fattened through the warm months —sometimes they had turned the hogs out into the woods to fatten themselves because they couldn’t afford to feed them —then butcher them to hang in the smokehouse to cure. The colder weather meant the meat wouldn’t spoil and would see them through to the next summer’s harvest of vegetables. When the garden turned out, they worked hard to “put up” canned vegetables and gather fruits for jams and jellies.
“We always put up 300 quarts of everything. That’s what we were taught,” explained Shirley Miller, wife of former Georgia governor and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller. Long into the winter of their lives, the Millers worked hard to have a bountiful garden and store up for the cold, sunless days.
They listened and learned from those who went before them and when you think about it, that’s a pretty wise way to learn about things like long, hard, cold winters.
And the warnings of wooly boogers.