Whenever folks talk about weather in America, most quote that famous saying attributed to Mark Twain, "everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Unfortunately, like so many other weather myths, and misconceptions, Twain never originated that saying. A fellow by the name of C.D. Warner did, but after Twain quoted him in a speech, the saying was forever after known as one of Twain's sayings. At any rate, weather is very important to us. Often the greeting when we meet is something weather related such as, "Nice day we're having!" We all know this is a reference to the temperature of the sunlight, not to any economic or political situation.
Up until the turn of the twentieth century, America was pretty much a rural country dependent on the farms and thus the weather for food, clothes and shelter. It's no wonder the farmers, ranchers and timber men of the time were so concerned with the weather. Without the modern day instruments such as radar and satellites, they relied on more down to earth indicators.
Some were superstitions such as "When it rains while the sun is shining, the devil is beating his wife."
Others were sound science, " The higher the clouds, the better the weather." Clouds are held high when the air is dry and the atmospheric pressure is high. Both conditions are indicators used to this day by professional meteorologists.
Much of the weather in these parts comes in from the west and then runs up along the line of the Smokies into Kentucky and Virginia, eventually arriving in the northern and eastern portions of the country. This western arriving weather lends itself to much speculation and is used as a means of predicting what's coming. In the earth's temperate zones changes most weather patterns move west to east. That usually means folks to the east are directly in the path of whatever weather is approaching. This fact has been known for thousands of years.
In the book of Luke 12:54, Jesus said, "When you see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say: there cometh a shower: and so it is."He also originated a saying we have all heard:
"Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." Jesus said, "When it is evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering."
Several other observations of wind and thus weather direction pointed to the west as the area most observe red for weather changes.
"Wind from the west, fish bite best."
"Wind from the east, fish bite least."
This may be partially true, but the rhyme is more likely the reason for this poem. The following little rhyme however is based on sound observation.
"A weathercock that swings to the west
Proclaims the weather to be the best.
A weathercock that swings to the east
Proclaims no good for man or beast."
This one may be closer to the reality of how wind brings weather change since a wind from the southwest all the way round to the northwest usually has dry air. Those from the east bring rain.
Other little bits of mountain weather lore also hold much truth. "When Lookout Mountain has his hat on (the peak is surrounded by clouds), there's gonna be rain in the valley in six hours."
Then there are the indicators many animals display, or at least many old-timers claim they display.
"When bees stay close to their hive, rain isn't far away." This, as any beekeeper will tell you, is an infallible forecast as is, "Bees a' swarmin' in July, Bring little more than a dry."
How much truth is there to the belief that, "When a dog eats grass, it's likely to rain?"
Well, that may be truer than you think if it's an older dog. Dogs eat grass when they are feeling discomfort. An old dog that may be suffering from a bit of rheumatism will be affected by the pre-storm lowering of pressure. This adds to his other discomfort and since the only thing he can do is eat grass which will purge his system.
"Flies and fish bite more before a rain."
The flies may be attracted to the increased sweating and body odor that is released by the lowering of atmospheric pressure just before a storm. Fish, as any sportsman can attest, actually do bite more readily before and after a rain.
"There ain't a better thermometer than a chirping cricket!"
Maybe not as accurate as the cricket, the katydid is still a good indicator of a major weather change. The cricket-like insect gets its name from it's call "kate-ee-did!, kate-ee-did!" However, they have variations. These variations depend on temperature. At 87 degrees, their song is longer: "kate-ee-did-n't!, kate-ee-did-n't!" At approximately 72 degrees, they shorten the call to "kate-ee-did!, kate-ee-did!"
This is true and crickets are extremely accurate. Count the number of chirps for fourteen seconds; add forty and you have the temperature of the cricket's location. The temperature may be a few degrees warmer where you are, because crickets tend to stay in low-lying debris and shadow.
At 65 degrees it is even shorter, "kate-ee!, kate-ee!" At 58 degrees it is only "kate!, kate! And a barely audible "ka.., ka.."at 55. Below that, they are silent.
Some of the more difficult to believe predictions also relay on animals. Well, rather on their demise.
"Kill a beetle or step on an ant and it will rain".
"Kill a snake and turn it belly up and it will rain."
"Bury a snake, and good weather you make."
"Hang a snake high to bring good weather nigh."
Domestic animals are also heralds of weather.
"When sheep huddle, there's soon to be a puddle."
"When the cock crows at bed, he wakens with rain on his head."
"A rooster that crows at night is telling you a big rain is in sight."
One of the most popular ways of predicting the upcoming winter also relies on an animal, the wooly bear. Supposedly the width of the brown portion of his coat foretells the severity of the coming winter. The wider the brown section, the milder the winter.
Plants, too play a role in mountain weather predictions. Some of them are fanciful like:
"Onion skin's mighty thin,
Mild winter is coming in;
Onion skin very tough,
Coming winter will be rough."
There is scientific foundation for many of these. "When leaves turn their backs, rain is coming"is one of these. A tree's leaves grow in a pattern determined by prevailing winds. Storm winds are naturally non-prevailing, blowing the leaves backward from their normal orientation thus showing their backs.
The position of the plentiful rhododendron's leaves can indicate temperature. At 60 degrees and above, the leaves are standing straight out. At 40 degrees, they are at approximately 45 degrees and at 20 degrees are pointing down.
A word of caution to prospective bride and grooms that may be planning a Smoky Mountain wedding. There's an old Hillbilly saying you may find interesting:
"A rainy wedding day
Makes the skies of marriage gray."
Just wanted to pass that along for what it's worth.
Of course there are many, many more weather predicting methods in the lore of the Smokies. If you know of any, please send em in; we'll maybe do this again sometime.
Like we said, a lot of these old folks predictions are less than reliable, however you can't discount them completely. There's many an old-timer still around who can listen to the animals, sniff the air or look up into the sky and make predictions that are far more accurate than those by any meteorologist with all his college education and fancy store-bought gear!