It's been six weeks since Pennsylvania's favorite weather prognosticator – the groundhog – made his prediction for an extended winter, and although recent weather indicates that warmer seasons may finally be approaching, this unusually cold and snowy winter has us all asking, "When will it be over!?"
Looking back, all the signs of a treacherous winter may have been there long before the first snowflake fell or the first polar vortex spun its icy arms across the region.
According to Hereford Historian Carl Arner, a member of Grundsow Lodge No. 7, our region's Pennsylvania German ancestors had a number of ways to predict the severity of the coming winter.
For example, most people know to look at the woolly bear caterpillars crawling around during late summer and fall: The more black the caterpillar is, the worse the winter will be. But Arner says there are other signs in nature – such as how high white faced hornets build their nests in the trees (the higher the nest, the more snow we'll get) – that the Pennsylvania Germans used to plan and prepare.
The ability to predict weather events among the PA German "was survival for them and just a means to get from year to year," Arner said.
Not surprisingly in our agricultural area, a lot of weather folklore involves animal behavior. "Animals can detect a lot of things," said Arner, who grew up on a farm in the 1930s and 40s. "You could sense from cows if a storm was coming. I think that's true with birds -- everything like that."
Who didn't see the squirrels frantically gathering nuts last fall? The frenzied activity was another sign of a harsh winter to come (versus a year when they're not quite as active). Did you also notice the squirrel's tail? According to Arner, the higher a squirrel's tail is while it's running during autumn, the more snow will fall that winter.
Another forecasting tool Arner learned from his grandfather was to measure the length of the icicles that form between Christmas and New Years -- that will indicate how many inches of snow we will get.
But enough about winter. How can we tell is spring is approaching?
Eager for their first glimpse of assurance that winter has passed on, many residents are undoubtedly scanning the ground for crocuses to pop out of flower beds or for the first robins to alight on the grass, searching for worms.
One sure sign may be a familiar spring fragrance wafting through the air: The skunks are back.
There is much speculation about what this spring will be like. Will it be wet? Will it be cold? Again, we can turn to the Dutch and look inside our cultural toolkit for potential answers.
Alfred Shoemaker, in his 1960 book "Eastertide in Pennsylvania," offers the familiar: "White Christmas, Green Easter; Green Christmas, White Easter." Perhaps less well know is this saying from a 1905 article about weather predictions among the Dutch published in "The Pennsylvania German": "If the cat basks in the sun in February, it must go back to the stove in March."
For those still working the land, it's time to listen up: "Thunder in March delights the farmer's heart, as it foretells a rich harvest," writes Shoemaker.
While there are countless ways to predict when it will rain, a few stand out as seasonal indicators. For example, according to the 1905 article, written by James Bear Stoudt, "Rain on Good Friday portends a dry spring." However, Good Friday rain is rare, Arner said, adding that his grandmother who used to pow-wow, would collect any rain that fell on that day as it is believed to have healing qualities.
Rain on Whitsunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter, or June 8 this year) will be followed by six weeks of wet weather, according to Stoudt; Shoemaker's version of this belief keeps the rainy weather to only the seven Sundays following rain on Whitsunday.
And, "If it rains on Ascension Day (May 29), rain will be of no help all summer long because there will follow a dry wind each time," Shoemaker writes.
As Arner points out, the beliefs, held by our forebearers (and perhaps still useful today), are quickly being lost as people grow older and eventually pass on. Although some resources do exist in our various historical societies and libraries, sharing past knowledge with younger generations is imperative to preserving our cultural identity.
Do you know of any traditional weather prognostication tools? If so, let us know!