Being the only child present at most family gatherings, I'd be found either toting various animals around the homestead or sitting in the kitchen or on the porch, listening to adults 30 to 60 years my senior. I learned early on that farmers and country folk are uniquely tied to nature. As I sat snapping beans into an enamelware bowl with my great-grandmother, she'd explain how the world around me would tell me all sorts of things if I'd just listen.
Wooly worms would tell me a lot, she said. I played with them all the time, carting them in my hands and pockets, and they'd never once said so much as a "Hdello" to me. But she assured me I didn't know their language. Solid black wooly worms told of a cold winter. The wider their brown band, the milder the winter would be.
Crickets would tell me the temperature (in Fahrenheit, of course) if I counted the number of chirps in 14 seconds and added 40. Frogs would tell me about the rain, for the louder they croaked, the heavier the rainfall. A ring around the moon on a winter's night would tell me snow was coming.
And persimmon seeds? Why, they were talkative little gossips! If the kernel inside a persimmon seed was shaped like a spoon, it'd be a cold wet winter. If shaped like a knife, it'd be a cold dry winter with freezing winds to "cut" you. And if it was shaped like a fork, it'd be a mild winter.
I always tried to find one that looked like a spork from the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I suspect that would have gotten me tossed from the kitchen.
But come late winter, the groundhog was the farmer's most important meteorologist. If a groundhog saw his shadow on Feb. 2 and went back in his hole, there'd be another six weeks of winter.
As best I can tell, many cultures historically held rituals on the midpoint (early February) between winter solstice and spring equinox. They would herald the coming of spring and show gratitude for the new animals and crops they hoped to raise. Some cultures believed that a poorly sighted spirit would make the day bright, so she could see to gather more firewood for the rest of the winter. Or, if winter was almost over, she'd leave the day cloudy because she didn't need more wood. Others watched burrowing animals, and depending on their activity, spring was thought to either come early or late that year.
Over time, ancient traditions blended with medieval Roman and Catholic customs, and the legend evolved that sun on an un-burrowed hedgehog meant more winter lay ahead. But hedgehogs weren't native to America, so when colonists settled into what is now Pennsylvania, the groundhog became its replacement. Thus, Groundhog Day, and eventually the mascot Punxsutawney Phil via the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, was born.
Now those ol' talking wooly worms don't sound so silly after all, do they?
NAN Our Town on 02/02/2017
Print Headline: Porch-sittin' meteorology