Outdoors: Warm fur, cold heart

Winter's coming, and it's wise to watch your back.

Twice this fall, while descending the 22 stone steps from our house's front door to the street-side parking space, I've narrowly missed being bonked in the head by whizzing acorns. Squirrels are letting the nuts fly from the safety of the tin-roofed garage that abuts the stairs. They've swarmed the oaks, and I can't tell if they're simply dropping what they can't carry, or they're pelting me on purpose: "Move it, woman. We don't have time for your instinctless dithering."

Boy meets worm: This woolly specimen, discovered along the banks of the French Broad River, proved noncommittal on the subject of winter-weather prognostication. Photo by Melanie Bianchi

In any case, they seem frantic to get back to wherever they're hoarding their stash. I've spotted heavy-looking Vs of southward-flying geese since as far back as late September. And our old kitty has suddenly bestirred herself to hunt again after years of self-satisfied dormancy. She's turned the yard into her private killing fields, crucifying the luckless titmice and house finches that try to get a nip out of the front-porch feeder.

Such a widespread increase in animal activity seems to forecast a hard winter ahead, and a fun, all-ages outdoor activity is a forest hike designed expressly to spot such portents. But what's the "official" word? Well, farmersalmanac.com confirms "bitter cold" for much of the country in the first part of 2010. In a related blog, 20 old-timey signs of an approaching cold season are listed. These include "early departure of geese and ducks," "spiders spinning larger than usual webs and entering the house in great numbers," "frequent halos around the sun and moon," "unusual abundance of acorns," and my personal favorite: "pigs gathering sticks."

Perhaps most tellingly, the list suggests looking for a "narrow orange band in the middle of the Woollybear caterpillar … fat and fuzzy caterpillars presage bitter cold."

"Woollybear" is a New England term; in the Southern Appalachians, these furry tiger-moth larvae are called Woolly Worms and are celebrated with a cultishly beloved two-day annual event in Banner Elk. The main attraction is a series of crawling heats featuring the many-legged guests of honor. Don't laugh: The "race" is capped by a $1,000 purse.

The 32nd-annual Woolly Worm Festival was held Oct. 17 and 18. By the end of Sunday, against a glorious tableau of rich foliage and snow-capped peaks, the winner was a worm called Wilbur belonging to Noah Jens of Chapel Hill. Wilbur got the honor of forecasting the coming winter: The shade of his middle bands predicted colder-than-usual temps but just so-so snow.

"Over the last 20 years, the worms have had an 85-percent record for accuracy," boasts a passage on the festival's Web site. "Scientists would prefer not to acknowledge [this]."

In fact, there's some disagreement as to whether more black bands on a black-and-orange woolly worm mean a hard season, or if it's the number of bands alone that make the call. On a recent hike beside the French Broad River, my son and I spotted a specimen comprised of only two bands, exactly half black and half orange. Maybe woolly worms are getting as wishy-washy in their predictions as Weather Channel forecasters.

A few days ago, I noticed a splendid fat groundhog waddling across a scrap of field surrounded by a trinity of ominous black crows. I'm sure there must be some old-timey song about what's in store when whistlepigs and ravens meet.

But others, like A.D. Harrell, a 93-year-old Mitchell County farmer, doesn't put much stock in prognostication folklore, save for an early killing frost, "and we haven't had one of those around here in about 15 or 20 years, I reckon."

On his wedding night — 67 years ago on Sept. 24, 1942 — "we had a frost so severe it burned through some of the tobacco crops," he remembers. Harrell tells of mountain winters so intense that the Red Cross was called in to supply farmers with feed. "One year, starting in February, we had about two snows a week for a month until finally there was 95 inches on the ground. We just walked over the tops of the fences like there weren't nothing to them."

Once an avid hunter of ruffed grouse, he notes their gradual disappearance from the area, partly because of parasites that thrive in warmer temperatures.

"There used to be many, many ruffed grouse in N.C., and now there are practically none. I think that is due to the lack of cold, snowy weather. Grouse tend to do better in real cold climates," explains Harrell.

"I have spent a lifetime outdoors," he says. "It definitely is warmer now than it used to be."

See www.farmersalmanac.com/weather/a/can_acorns_predict_a_rough_winter and www.woollyworm.com for more fun bits.

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.
There's some disagreement as to whether more black bands on a black-and-orange woolly worm mean a hard season, or if it's the number of bands alone that make the call.]

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