Woolly worms are wiggling their way across East Tennessee and this autumn the caterpillars are back with plenty of black. If you are a believer in old folklore, the black bands indicate several weeks of harsh winter weather.
"The woolly worms, if it's got black around them, that's a sign of bad winter. If it's got more of the lighter color that's a sign of the milder winter. This year I noticed the woolly worms have got the black on each end," said Bobby Stooksbury, a TWRA officer and long-time volunteer at the Museum of Appalachia in Anderson County.
Banner Elk, North Carolina, just held its annual Woolly Worm Festival over the weekend. The festival's website explains, "The Woolly Bear caterpillar has 13 brown and black segments… [that] correspond to the 13 weeks of winter. The lighter brown a segment is, the milder that week of winter will be. The darker black a segment is, the colder and snowier the corresponding week will be."
David Irwin at the Museum of Appalachia explains that the woolly worm is just one of several pieces of folklore that has attempted to provide long-term forecasts. According to one legend, the old bluegrass musicians Flatt and Scruggs may have been onto something with their tune the Foggy Mountain Breakdown because summer fog breaks down the severity of winter weather.
"Yeah, you count the number of fogs in August, and that will tell you the number of snows you'll have during the winter," said Irwin. "I remember my grandparents talking about heavy silks on corn being an indicator of a bad winter."
Long before Doppler radar, folks tuned in to Mother Nature for any sign of how many logs they would have to throw on the fire.
"They were looking for something to go by where it would be important to them, because in those days you wanted to raise and put up as much as you can in case there was a bad winter to make it to springtime," said Stooksbury.
Early migration of geese, lots of spider webs, and thick fur on livestock was frequently cited as signs of winter forecasts. But Stooksbury believes animals are much better at predicting weather in the near-future.
"I know fish are more aggressive when a front is coming in. When you see cattle bed down together in the winter, I will almost guarantee you there's a front coming through in the next day," said Stooksbury. "Same way with squirrels. My dad always said if you see squirrels working hard for two or three days, that was a sign bad weather is coming in. Sometimes that is true."
Irwin said previous generations passed down plenty of rhymes to provide reason to the forecast.
"There were some old limericks like, 'Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.' Those are actually describing things that are happening in the atmosphere right then and there, so I put more credence into them," said Irwin. "The other thing people used a lot was the Farmers Almanac, but that was always more for fun than anything. I don't know if anybody really takes those things serious anymore."
The truth is no one can reliably predict the weather with any degree of accuracy several months in advance. But limericks, livestock, and woolly worms can keep a piece of culture burning bright in the coldest of winters.
"It is like collecting antiques, you collect old sayings. It is a part of history. It is a part of our culture and our heritage," said Irwin.