Nelson: Weather can give you whiplash

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Farm Forum

In this part of the world the seasons can change with such suddenness that those caught unawares often get whiplash.

One afternoon, going outdoors gives you the impression that you have mistakenly wandered into a Turkish bath (minus the hairy, sweaty men). The next morning it’s so chilly that you commence to rooting through your closet in search of that jacket you were certain you would never need again.

Perhaps the most shocking transition is the one that takes us from summer into autumn. It’s the ice bucket challenge of season changes.

When that first slap of cold air smacks us across the face, we are reminded that summer won’t last forever. We in the Northland know that the only endless summer is the one that involves a particular Beach Boys album.

As the days grow shorter we try to read the leaves, looking for omens that will tell us what the coming season might bring.

One tidbit of weather folklore is that the first frost will occur six weeks after you hear the first cicada. I hope this isn’t true because I heard my first buzz-bug on the Fourth of July. This would add up to a growing season that’s shorter than the fuse of a cut-rate firecracker.

An old-timer once told me that when the majority of wooly bear caterpillars have broad stripes, a tough winter is in the offing. Or did he say narrow stripes?

In any case, I recently saw a wooly bear that was one solid color. I can’t decide if this meant that the fuzzy larva was sporting one really broad stripe or no stripe at all. I guess it doesn’t matter, as I can’t recall what the old guy had said about those furry worms.

Another timeworn tidbit of folk wisdom that can supposedly predict the severity of a coming winter is the thickness of cornhusks. The theory is that corn plants – who, coincidentally, have hairdos that are remarkably similar to those of TV weather persons – somehow know what the weather will be like months in advance. You may as well try to predict the winter weather based on what you see in the Guy’s Arctic Garb section of a JC Penney catalog. Although this is probably just as accurate as the so-called “computerized climate models” that are used by so-called “NASA.”

Besides, field corn has undergone a great deal of modification over the years. Modern plant geneticists could probably create corn which has husks that look like wooly bear caterpillars.

When I was a kid, Martin, our grizzled Norwegian bachelor farmer neighbor, had a reputation as a weather oracle. This reputation was diligently cultivated by Martin himself.

Martin often “happened” to drop in at our farm just as we were taking our midmorning coffee break. My parents would invariably invite him to join us. As he took a seat at our kitchen table, Martin might portentously announce, “I see that the barn swallows are flying counterclockwise. We’ll get rain the day after tomorrow.”

It was as if Martin were blessed with some sort of supernatural meteorological intuition. The rain would always come precisely as he predicted.

Martin might stop by to chat on a balmy fall morning. Staring off into the distance, he might intone, “We’re gonna have a hard frost tomorrow night. I can feel it in my bones.” Martin’s prediction would prove uncannily accurate.

One autumn afternoon, I was sent over to Martin’s farm to work on the corn picker we owned with him. I was glad for the opportunity to drink from the fountainhead of Martin’s homespun weather wisdom.

As we greased and tweaked, Martin developed a hankering for a cigarette. He stuck an unfiltered Lucky Strike between his lips and struck a match. Or tried to. Martin’s frustration grew as match after match refused to light. Thinking that this might be some sort of omen, I asked if it meant a change in the weather.

“No,” he replied brusquely, “It means I grabbed the book of matches that got rained on when I left them on top of a fencepost!”

His need for nicotine soaring by the second, Martin sprinted to his pickup. He began to frantically rummage around in its cab, which closely resembled a rat’s nest. He at last located a functional match and used its fire to extinguish his craving. I could see him physically relax.

Martin flipped a button and his pickup’s radio blared to life. We listened in silence until the announcer had finished reading the weather report.

Martin switched off the radio and proclaimed, “We’d better get back to work. I’ve got a gut feeling that we have a 50% chance of snow on Friday!”

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at jjpcnels@itctel.com. His new book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.