Adventures of a Citizen Scientist: Weather Beliefs

Posted: September 19, 2012

Legend has it that the size and color of woolly bear caterpillars can forecast the winter weather. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)
Humankind has been talking about and trying to predict the weather for thousands of years.  The Shenandoah Valley has our own rich traditions of weather superstitions and customs. To some, weather folklore may seem outdated or even silly. But before discounting the old weather beliefs, consider our modern interest in meteorology. We plan our days by electronic weather news and bulletins in much the same way that Valley residents of old watched nature signs for clues of upcoming heat, rain, snow and fog.

One weather tradition that everyone knows is forecasting winter with the humble wooly bear caterpillar or wooly worm. Scientifically speaking, the wooly worm is the caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth. Traditionally, the colors and patterns of these common autumn caterpillars tell the mildness or severity of the coming winter. Legend holds that a woolly worm shows more black than orange as the winter forecast grows worse. A solid black wooly worm is the harbinger of a particularly severe winter while a solid orange caterpillar foretells a mild winter. The locations of dark bands on the woolly worms tell when in the season bad weather will fall, but if the caterpillar is black on both ends, some say it means a mild winter.

Traditional local weather beliefs also consider the actions and appearances of other animals. You probably knew that migrating
Canada geese forecast the onset of cooler weather. But did you know the old timers believe that when geese start flying earlier than usual, it means a difficult winter? Large flocks of blackbirds, cawing crows and flocks of birds on the ground were also considered predictions of bad weather. Animals grew thicker fur when cold weather was on the way. Frogs croaking meant rain, as did a rooster crowing at night. 

Compilations of regional weather folklore also note how people can predict coming precipitation by signs in their own body. Corns and bunions hurt before rain and arthritis acts up before damp weather.

The moon was used throughout the world to forecast coming weather. One often-heard belief is that a ring around the moon means rain (or snow) is coming soon. Some say that if there are stars in the ring, you can count them to determine in how many days the snow or rain will come. The way a crescent moon pointed was also used to forecast rain. One belief was that the moon was poised to hold in or pour out rain by its position in the sky.

My favorite regional weather belief is “Mary Goes over the Mountain,” a saying of the Pennsylvania-Dutch culture. The old belief was that the Virgin Mary, carrying the unborn Christ Child, went to visit her cousin Elizabeth on July 2 and came back six weeks later, on Aug. 15. 

In his “Superstitions” booklet of The Virginia and West Virginia Mountain and Valley Folklife Series (1997), the late Valley folklorist John Heatwole reported hearing the tradition as, “If Mary goes over the mountains dry on the first day of the Dog Days, hot weather will follow for six weeks.  If Mary goes over the mountain wet on the first Day of the Dog Days, six weeks of on and off rain will follow.”

Another interesting belief that Heatwole collected told of the cold rain that came with a few days of the first sheep shearing of the year. This usually happened in May. Heatwole wrote that old Valley residents planned important spring events by this “sheep rain.”

Read more about Shenandoah Valley weather superstitions in the collection of former Madison College professor Dr. Elmer Lewis Smith (housed in Special Collections at James Madison University).

Thank you to Shenandoah Valley Folklife Society member and local historian Dale MacAllister for providing notes on Smith’s research and for his own articles on this topic. 
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