I thought only farmers and outdoorsy people listen to weather forecasts. Not so. I read somewhere that 83 per cent of Canadians start their day checking the weather on television, the radio or the Internet.
Farmers have a vested interest in knowing what the weather will be in the days ahead. Older farmers watched the sky, the wind, and the cattle. Long before meteorologists had sophisticated technology to help them predict the weather, people made forecasts based on their observations.
Many of the traditional sayings they used, called proverbs, are surprisingly accurate. “A cow with its tail to the west makes the weather best.” But “a cow with its tail to the east makes the weather least.”
When cattle are grazing, it’s a different story. They are not bothered by winds if the grazing is good.
Older farmers, like my father, checked the sky first thing in the morning and in the evening he’d look at how the sun set. If it set in a “nest,” as he called it — a dirty sky that resembled a mare’s tail or a painter’s brush — it was a sign of rain. Red sky in the evening meant nice weather ahead. (Red sky in morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight). A ring around the sun or moon meant there is moisture in the air.
There are weather forecasts based solely on observing one’s own farm. When our south side front barn door blew shut during milking, it was a sure sign of coming rain.
I remember the important sayings Father taught me. Many were in Dutch such as this one: Avondrood, morgen mooi weer aan boord, ochtendrood vanavond water in de sloot. (Loose translation to get the rhyme: Evening red and weather fine. Morning red, of rain’s a sign.) He didn’t look at the thickness of onion skins, or the height of wasp nests — that kind of stuff.
Some poetic favourites:
When smoke ascends straight up there is little likelihood of rain.
Chimney smoke descends, our nice weather ends.
Mare’s tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails.
Rain before seven, quits before eleven (that one I learned as a boy).
A wind from the south has rain in her mouth.
Rain from the east, two wet days at least.
If a circle forms around the moon, it will rain soon.
When dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass.
When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night.
Cold is the night when the stars shine bright.
No weather is ill, if the wind be still.
Catchy drawer and sticky door, coming rain will pour and pour.
Rain long foretold, long last, short notice, soon will pass.
When the ditch and pond offend the nose, then look out for rain and stormy blows.
The sudden storm blast last not three hours.
The sharper the blast, the sooner ‘tis past.
“Clear moon, frost soon.”
The higher the clouds, the finer the weather.
When I was 16 years old in 1966, I worked for a plumbing and steam fitting company that had the contract for the addition to South Carleton High School in Richmond. Some of our crew of plumbers and steam fitters boarded in Richmond at a boarding house run by an elderly spinster named Gerty. She was a tiny, bent-over woman.
We worked long hours for a year, going home on the weekends. We often had fun during meals when we’d talk about upcoming weather. Gerty had no use for weather lore. Hard as we tried, none of us could convince her that there is some truth to the weather lore sayings.
Half of the 10 boarders were from Quebec — outdoorsy lads — and they could get Gerty worked up. Lionel would say, “Gerty, we’re in for some rain because the crickets are chirping.” Then Andre the welder would pipe in saying he saw a ring around the moon last night and Desmond would tell her he saw “sheep standing in a huddle, tomorrow we’ll have a puddle.” I’d add about the barn door blowing shut at home.
And so it went. Gerty would shake her head in disgust. “I can’t believe you guys,” she would say. “How can you believe that stuff?”
Father taught me to observe the sky. Gerty’s dad and granddad obviously didn’t!