Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

November 3, 2006

If the woolly worms are right, get ready for a cold winter

By Melinda Hedgecoth / Special to the Chronicle


•Not many woolly worms were spotted, but those seen were black on the ends and brown in the middle, indicating a harsh beginning and end of winter with a mild spell in between.

•Hornets nests were built on the ground, indicating cold weather ahead.

•Heavy foliage and mast crops indicate a colder, harder winter.

•Five early morning fogs were counted in August, with only two of them heavy. This points to five snows for the winter, with two heavy snows.

Myriad corn shocks dot a lonely field, their quiet rustle whispering on an urgent autumn wind. Fat, orange pumpkins peep coyly from their nests of tangled vines while plump, juicy apples in their gold and scarlet jackets bob merrily just out of reach overhead. Mountain vistas beckon in their tapestried array of flaming color, each distant peak seemingly vying with the next for another unsurpassed display of breathtaking beauty. Dawn speaks to us in a hushed, burnished wonder of its own as lofty peaks rise midst the fog-enshrouded coves and hollers — the crisp, cool air enveloping us in its invigorating embrace while luring us to come and partake of another glorious Appalachian autumn day unfolding in all its panoramic splendor.

The lonely caw of the crow, the scolding chatter of a busy squirrel, the urgent honking of geese, and last but not least, the lowly woolly worm decked out in his striped overcoat hurrying its way along the highways and woodlands making its signature brief appearance before cold weather sends it scuttling into its warm nest for a long winter's nap. A much anticipated appearance, I might add, as Appalachia's premier winter weather indicator for the upcoming winter ahead! All contribute to the heady blend that sends our senses reeling as nature showcases its finest dress plumage before surrendering to winter's impending blast!

Yes, folks, with that in mind, it's time for us, too, to turn our attention to nature's signs all around us for a glimpse of what we can expect weatherwise for the upcoming winter just ahead!

Hello again all! It's good to be alive and in the mountains of Tennessee during this exquisitely beautiful fall season! After traveling around the region to many of the area festivals, I think this has to be one of the most beautiful falls I've seen in years. We've attended festivals showcasing everything from pumpkins, to apples, to yes — woolly worms!

In the western North Carolina mountains, they take their woolly worms as seriously as we do here in Tennessee as a winter weather predictor. Each year they hold a woolly worm festival in Banner Elk, NC, the third weekend of October. If you've never been, it's a real treat to attend and watch the fun of a woolly worm race. Yes, they race their woolly worms with the winning woolly worm given the honor of becoming the official weather prognosticator for the upcoming winter. Don't laugh — the grand prize is $1,000!

It's all in great fun as the festival not only celebrates the local honored tradition of using the woolly worm as a winter weather indicator but also helps raise money for the local elementary school. Arts and crafts abound as well as music and food galore. The children particularly were enthralled by the prospect of racing woolly worms and the resultant jubilant atmosphere made for a merry, fun-filled festival. Too, the area around Valle Crucis (of Mast General Store fame) hosts the Valle Crucis Country Fair each year, also on the third Saturday in October, with many fine arts and crafts showcased there as well. The original Mast General Store, still housed in the old original 1880s building, is worth a trip in itself, for not only the atmosphere and nostalgia of the old building, but for the varied, fine products they house there. Also, the Old Candy Barrel shop adjacent to the General Store is a treat in itself with barrels of old fashioned candy lining the interior of the shop. Baled baskets are available to hold your selections, with old-fashioned scales located at the cash register in order to weigh your goodies upon checkout, just like they did in the old days!

All in all it's a fun-filled beautiful time of the year to plan a visit there and no visit is complete without a visit to the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, which was absolutely stunning color wise this year. We had a wonderful time, but still were so glad to be back in our own mountains of Tennessee where our colors easily rivaled North Carolina for their scenic beauty. It is absolutely true, there is no place like home!

Speaking of home, it's time to get down to the business of weather predicting and offer my prediction for the upcoming winter. For those of you not familiar with local lore and the weather predicting tradition, this is an old Appalachian tradition that has been practiced for generations, not only by my family (the late Mrs. Helen Lane of Crab Orchard, TN, the former weather lore maven of Tennessee) but by most pioneer families of old, dating back to lore they learned from the Indians. It is still practiced by many Appalachian people in our day and time. Basically, the old-timers didn't have Doppler radar and meteorologists to keep them informed of impending weather, so they had to learn to watch nature's signs around them to give them clues as to what to expect weatherwise. Signs such as:

•watching for early morning fogs in August which indicates the number of snows that can be expected during the winter. A heavy fog indicates a heavy snow, a light one a mild snow.

•watching how high or low hornets build their nests; if they build high, that indicates a mild winter; if they build low, a bad winter.

•the thickness of spider webs; when it's going to be a bad winter, there will be an abundance of spider webs. The early morning dew will reveal them scattered on top of the grass in yards and fields.

•the thickness of bark on trees; if the bark on a tree is particularly thick and gnarly, it's going to be a bad winter.

•if the foliage on the trees is thick and hangs on late in the fall, it's going to be a hard winter. The reasoning on that is that the heavier foliage creates more ground cover which in turn protects the little larva and other organisms below the earth's surface.

•if the mast crop (hickory nuts, acorns, etc.) is particularly heavy, it's going to be a hard winter.

•if cornhusks are thick, it'll be a bad winter.

•if fur on animals (such as squirrels, rabbits, deer, fox, and bear — or even domestic fur-bearing animals, if they stay outside all the time) is thick, it's going to be a hard winter.

•if squirrels are busier than usual gathering nuts without chattering, it's going to be a bad winter.

•the first katydid you hear in July gives you frost dates three months later in October.

And of course, let's not forget the woolly worms!

•if the woolly worms are solid black, this means a bad winter from beginning to end with no break in the severeness of it; if they're solid brown, this means a mild winter; if they're black on both ends and brown (or orange) in the middle, it means the beginning and ending of winter will be bad, with a mild spell in between. Also, if there are an abundance of woolly worms (more than usual) this also signifies a hard winter.

Let me interject a bit of woolly worm trivia that I learned on my trek to the Woolly Worm Festival. Woolly worms (or woolly bears as they are also known) are the orange (or brown) and black striped caterpillars of the Isabella moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). They're most often found in the fall months when they start to seek shelter for the upcoming winter. Once temperatures cool, woolly worms hibernate until they emerge to warmer weather. It is in the spring that woolly worms spin cocoons and in two to three weeks emerge as adult moths. Their range is large, covering most of the North American continent including Mexico and Canada. Woollies eat a variety of foods including dandelions, asters, clover, nettles and plantain. According to folk legend, the 13 weeks of winter correspond to the woolly worms 13 colored bands. A red or orange band indicates mild conditions, while a black band means colder, snowier weather. This is interesting as I've never heard Mama or any of the other old-timers in our area mention anything about "13 bands;" however, the colors correspond to the appropriate weather condition just the same as we predict.

Woolly worms are very gentle and do not bite or sting. When they're scared, they curl up in a ball and hide their face. They love their freedom and enjoy their habitats in quiet wooded areas.

Speaking of woolly worms, there have not been very many of them in our area this year and, other than at the Woolly Worm Festival itself, I didn't see many crawling on paths, or in fields, or on the road in North Carolina either. However, the ones I did see (in both states) were black on both ends and brown in the middle. This means of course, that our winter is going to be hard at the beginning and ending of winter with a mild spell in between. This already seems to be panning out as this has been one of the coolest Octobers in a number of years. Why, we've already had a couple of days here on the mountain where it was cold enough that it was spitting snow! A hominy snow, as a matter of fact, which is a snow that produces tiny bead-like balls of snow which bounce when they hit the ground. It's really cold when this type of snow forms. Too, we had our first frost on October 13, exactly 3 months from when we heard our first katydid call on July 13, which is pretty early in the season.

Regarding hornets nests, there have not been too many sightings of them this year, but the ones that we have seen were right on the ground which means cold weather ahead!

The foliage on the trees has been heavy also this year and along with a fairly heavy mast crop indicates a colder, harder winter than usual.

Also, we've only counted five early morning fogs in August with only two of them heavy, so it looks like we're looking at five snows total for the winter, two of them heavy.

Another point of interest, which I'm not sure whether it indicates anything significant weatherwise, the pesky ants have about carried us off this year! I've haven't seen them this bad in years. I've had others comment to me that it's been the same at their house too. If their busyness indicates anything weather related, I dread to think of the significance. We're going to be watching for any unusual weather phenomenon to see if it might link up with them in some way.

So folks, to recap, it's looking like its going to be a colder winter than average with only five snows — two of them heavy. The lack of woolly worms and fogs indicates moderate snow for the winter but the hornet's nests being low, combined with a moderately heavy mast crop and thick foliage on the trees indicates cold weather. The color of the woolly worms indicates that the worst weather will fall at the beginning and ending of winter with a mild spell in between.

Also, some weather pointers to keep in mind and watch for in the upcoming months ahead:

•pay attention to upcoming December, as moonlit nights in December mean crops that are light and dark nights mean bountiful harvests in the upcoming year.

•thunder in December means a good fruit year, thunder in January wakes up the snakes (meaning unseasonably warm), and thunder in February gives you frost dates for May.

•the first three days of January rule the coming three months weatherwise; for instance, if January 1 is snowy, then the month of January will be snowy, if January 2 is rainy, then February will be rainy, etc.

•and last but not least, keep your eyes peeled for the old groundhog on Groundhog Day, of course, and no this wouldn't be on the modern-day Groundhog Day of Feb. 2, but instead on the old Groundhog Day of Feb. 14 which is when all of the old-timers observed it. Remember, if Mr. Groundhog sees his shadow, then six more weeks of winter to follow. If not, then an early spring.

Remember according to the old-timers, winter is never officially over until after Easter and even then you can still get a few surprises! Easter falls on April 8 next spring, so better button up and batten down, drag out those winter coats, pile those wood boxes full and get ready for a cold one!