Note: This essay was originally written for The Smoky Mountain News. It was subsequently revised and collected in Mountain Passages, which was published by the History Press (Charleston, S.C.) in 2005. This time around it has been re-revised and a weather sharp’s winter poem titled “Praise the Cold” has been appended.
Will it rain or shine? Will it be a hot? When will the first killing frost glitter on the ground? Will it be another cold winter? How many heavy snowfalls?
These days the answers are the province of trained meteorologists on the local, regional, and national level. But not so very long ago the local weather sharp was relied upon to forecast the weather — good or bad.
Here in the mountains weather sharps could be either a male or a female, but most were elderly men. They tended to be lean and spry. Hardly ever did one encounter a fat weather sharp. He or she had to be keen and alert to discern signs. Weather sharps, even those that were women, often smoked pipes. Smoking a pipe was meditative and helped one contemplate the future.
Weather sharps were usually loners. They often lived in remote cabins. They sometimes worked in fire towers. They lived close to nature. They paid attention to the plants and animals. Being a local weather sharp was just about a full time job. Here are the sorts of things that he or she knew as well as a poem one of them wrote.
Weather sharps always watched their cats. If the cat sat with its back to a heat source, they anticipated cold weather. A cat that sat with its back to the wind also signified cold weather. If the cat frisked about the cabin, a bad storm was brewing.
Weather sharps knew for certain that it would soon rain when cows lay down in the pasture; smoke went to the ground; birds flew low; or ants covered the holes of their hills.
Weather sharps listened closely to katydids. They knew that the first killing frost came exactly 90 days after the first katydids begin to sing. They carefully circled that day on calendars suspended on closet doors in their cabins.
Weather sharps also watched barnyard ducks whenever a pond or creek froze over in early winter. If the ice would bear the duck, the rest of the winter would be slush and muck.
In the fall of the year, weather sharps were always being consulted as to how many winter snowstorms were coming. There were a number of indicators that could be relied upon. They always checked the date of the first snowfall deep enough for rabbit tracks. This clearly indicated the number of winter snowstorms of three inches or more ahead; for example, if the first snowfall came on Nov. 6, six winter storms of three inches or more would come.
Weather sharps had to be good at counting. They counted the number of foggy mornings in August. This number always equaled the number of snowfalls for the following winter. They also counted the number of days from the first snowfall until Christmas. This number always equaled the number of snowfalls to expect afterwards.
There were things about snowfalls in general that every weather sharp knew: whenever snow lies in drifts in the shade and refuses to melt, the drifts become “snow breeders” that attract more snow; whenever the sun shines while snow is falling, expect more snow very soon; and, whenever a dog howled at the moon, it always signified an early snow.
Predicting whether a coming winter would be cold or not was a local weather sharp’s primary duty. His or her neighbors had to know how much wood to get up and how much food to put away. Accordingly, there were a number of signs having to do with the plants and animals that had to be consulted.
In regard to plants, they knew that the coming winter might be especially cold when moss grew on the south side of trees; fruit trees bloomed twice; blackberry blooms, holly berries, and acorns were prolific; hickory nuts had a thick shell; or onions grew more layers than usual.
In regard to the four-legged animals and birds they knew that the coming winter might be especially cold when the hair on bears, horses, mules, cows, and dogs was thick early in season; hoot owls called late in fall; juncos (snowbirds) fed up in the trees instead of on the ground; the breastbone of a fresh-cooked wild turkey was dark purple; and squirrels grew bushier tails, built their nests low in trees, accumulated huge stores of nuts, and buried the nuts deeply in the ground.
Insects were particularly significant for weather sharps when it came to forecasting winter weather. They knew that the coming winter might be especially cold when ants built their hills high; hornets built their nests low; and the fabled wooly worms were abundant, had heavy coats, and displayed wide black bands on their backs. A really accomplished weather sharp could discern by the thickness of the black and tan bands of a wooly worm which weeks during the winter would be mild or harsh.
Weather sharps were contemplative reclusive folks. They often suffered from insomnia. Little wonder, then, that they sometimes scribbled poems like this one titled “Praise the Cold” on the back of an envelope.
Frost flowers etched silvery gray
on flat dark window panes.
Beyond the door screech owls clatter.
Mist swirls in patterns unseen.
Hoof-struck stones ring in the pasture.
Twigs slowly crosshatched in first light.
Sun gaps emerge along the high ridge.
A shadow line on the far slope
descends slowly into the cove.
Glittering fragments congeal and the
bright world arises yet again.