Ramblins’ from the Hills & Hollers: Wooly worm worry creates prognostication puzzle

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Steve Oden

By Steve Oden

New Year resolutions and predictions of the future are trending as we approach 2020. I’m amazed that we’re two decades into the 21 st Century. Time seems to fly when you grow old andare having fun.
I distinctly remember all the doom-and-gloom forecasts that accompanied the new millennium. Can’t seem to remember many that came true, and those were balanced by positive things we didn’t expect in the new century. My advice is don’t put too much stock in doomsayers seeking audiences or media that wants to make them celebrities.
Better to put your faith in short-term natural signs, like portents published in the Farmer’s Almanac. Sophisticated and urban people might laugh, choosing to believe this type of prognostication is fantasy and unscientific hogwash. Many of us repudiate this modern view and have faith in the old ways.
At my age, I have come to believe that every new morning is a good one, regardless of the weather or daylight-saving time. This attitude becomes ingrained in Appalachians as we grow older, slow down and become more appreciative of the quiet rural life. Our eyesight and hearing might be weaker, but we evolve into more astute observers of natural cycles: spiritually attuned to the changes wrought by nature.
Take this year as an example. We started with monsoon rainfall; mid-year brought drought, shrunken creeks and dried-up ponds; summer set records for 90-degree days; the heat and lack of moisture lasted into October; and fall was abbreviated by an early arctic storm.
Several of old-timers—my elders in their 70s and 80s—saw it coming. Maybe not all of the year’s meteorological events fell under the umbrella of their forecasting, but they were eerily accurate for seniors who make their predictions from the table at a local diner over refills of morning coffee.
“Spring floods bring baked mud,” recited an octogenarian when I asked what he thought summer would bode weather-wise. It was late February and another storm front had inundated Tennessee. We were closing in on 14 inches of rain for the month.
His coffee-sipping buddy, a young whipper-snapper at 75, nodded and growled, “Parched ground and dried streams.” I respected them too much to question their sanity, but in August I was mowing dust instead of a lawn.
Another coffee-table prognosticator predicted a dry, hot autumn on the basis of the number of shrunken acorns and small hickory nuts.
“Won’t be no rains like we usually get,” he said. “Watch them yaller-jackets, skeeters an’ ticks. See if I ain’t right.”
At least in our neck of the woods, a normal fall season would extend the plague of biting and stinging insect pests. This year, you could strip down to your skivvies and dance through the woods without picking up a tick or getting mosquito-bitten during the days of September and October. Ditto for the yellow jackets that traditionally plague Labor Day picnics and backyard barbecues. I only saw a few stragglers over the period, even when we cut watermelons outside.
However, these same weather sign interpreters now are flummoxed by the portents of approaching winter. They grumble over their coffee and fried tenderloin biscuits, speak in whispers and shake their heads like tribal shaman who disagree among themselves.
The television weather forecasters and NOAA issued an “average winter” prediction for Tennessee. The old men are not so sure. “It’s the danged wooly worms,” said the 75-year-old, humped over an empty mug and tapping his fingers on the tabletop.
I’ve always been confused by this wooly-worm thing. The color, spacing and width of furry bands on the caterpillars are supposed to be a sure-fire way of gauging the severity of impending winter.
“What’s the deal with the worms?” I inquired.
A trio of gray heads turned toward me, eyes narrowing at my apparent ignorance.
“There ain’t any!” snapped the eldest.
Oh, my. Does the absence of wooly worms portend a catastrophic winter? Maybe a new ice age is on the way. Or is it just the effect of the hot, dry summer and shriveled vegetation? I don’t know, and the three weather prophets have shut me out of their mumbled conversations.
Guess I will order more propane and try to be ready for whatever Mother Nature delivers.