During this season of seasonal changes we look for signs of what might lie in store for us. We are essentially trying to read the tea leaves, even though the vast majority of us drink coffee.
Modern meteorologists are forever spouting about these things they call "El Nino" and "La Nina." This is actually the code names for Frank and Joe, two guys who are sequestered in a heavily guarded room located deep in the bowels of a super-secret weather prognostication facility. There, Frank and Joe spend their days using a silver dollar to make long-range weather prophesies.
"If it's heads we'll have a colder than normal winter in Minneapolis," Frank might intone in his official-sounding voice as the coin spirals upwards from Joe's thumb.
Or so it might seem. Being a long-range weather forecaster is about the only occupation where you can be consistently wrong yet continue to hold onto your job. Which is why we country folk have developed a system of important portents to help us divine our long-term meteorological prospects.
One of the most common of these has to do with the lowly wooly bear caterpillar. Legend has it that if you see a lot of wooly bears that have wide bands of contrasting color, a harsh winter is on the way. Or is that supposed to be the case when they sport narrow bands? I forget. If I can't recall, maybe the hairstyle of a furry and lethargic moth larva isn't such a reliable predictor after all.
Besides, the legend doesn't speak to the meaning behind wooly bears who are either all blonde or all brunette. Would this mean that some especially inhospitable weather is over the horizon? Or is it simply that the creepy crawlers have gained access to a large supply of Revlon Colorsilk?
And what does it mean if you haven't seen any wooly bears at all in the fall? This has been the case for me. On the other hand, during my walks I've run across several salamanders which I assiduously avoided touching due to their innate ickiness and the possibility of contracting salmonellosis.
When I was a kid, one purported predictor of the forthcoming winter had to do with how much husk was on the ears of corn. Thicker husks, went the common wisdom, meant a harsh winter.
That particular saying is all but useless nowadays. This is because modern hybrids have become so sophisticated, an average corn plant could perform an engine diagnosis on your car or help your college sophomore with their essay about Sophocles.
There once was a time when corn was a wilder and woolier plant, so husk thickness or thinness was probably a fairly good indicator of the upcoming winter. This was also a time when corn was picked by hand, which gave landsmen a very up-close and personal experience with said husk.
Corn picking machines had replaced the husking hook by the time I became old enough to help with corn harvest. But our machinery was so creaky and slow, the operator was still able to experience the corn crop somewhat personally.
"Well, there goes that one big ear that had that slight right curve," you might think as you gradually ground your way from one end of the field to the other.
One fall I was tasked with helping my Grandpa Nelson crib his corn. This involved shoveling and raking ear corn out of a pair of flare boxes, along with moving the elevator as each section of the crib filled.
Grandpa had a Super "C" Farmall to power the elevator, but alas, the elevator lacked a PTO input. The elevator instead was driven by a convoluted conglomeration of shafts and gears that were powered by the tractor's belt pulley. This contraption added immensely to the danger and complexity and noise level of cribbing operations.
But I didn't care. Working with Grandpa meant getting a chance to perchance absorb some of his hard-won homespun wisdom.
At one point Grandpa paused from his shoveling, straightened his back, and gestured toward the heavens.
"You see that?" he asked. His thick Norwegian brogue was difficult to understand over the clatter of the machinery.
I glanced skyward. High above, against a backdrop of startling cobalt blue, a thin gray arrow of geese was winging its way south.
"You see how one side of the V is longer than the other?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said, expecting to be served a healthy dollop of sage wisdom. "What does that mean?"
"It means," he replied as he turned back to his work, "That there's more geese on the one side of the V!"