On weather and folklore

Cow-Calf Commentary

To the best of our scientific knowledge, humans have been around in their present form for about a million years. It took our ancestors a very long time to develop civilizations and writing and record keeping, though, so we really don’t know many details about how those ancestors lived.
Some of the earliest history we’ve recovered dates from a mere 17,000 years ago, which coincides roughly with the end of the last ice age. This “history” exists in the form of cave paintings near Montignac, in France. The famous “Lascaux” paintings depict much of the flora and fauna which surrounded the painters. Some interpretations hold the paintings depict weather and climate details as well. In some sense, then, we can be assured our ancestors from 170 centuries in the past talked about, studied – and tried to understand and predict – the weather.
Since climate and weather are so important to our very existence, and indeed influence each and every day of our lives, it’s hard to imagine that our very earliest ancestors did not discuss, study, and strive to understand and predict weather and climate. This attempt to understand and predict is surely where weather folklore comes from.
When I lived in Italy many years ago, I was introduced to an interesting bit of weather folklore. The Italians paid careful attention to the first 24 days of the year. The first through 12th days were said to represent the year, with each day corresponding to the 12 months in order, January through December. Then, interestingly, the next 12 days, Jan. 13-24, were also said to represent the coming months, only in reverse order, with Jan. 13 representing December and the 24th representing the month of January.
The legend holds that, if the weather on month-representative days (Jan. 6 and 19, for instance, representing June) is similar, that will be the weather character of the month in question. If the weather on Jan. 6 and 19 is clear and relatively warm, for instance, the coming June will be clear and warm. If the weather on month-representative days is dissimilar, however, then no prediction can be made.
This bit of folklore never made any sense to me, but it seemed to be quite important to my Italian friends and neighbors. Those friends and neighbors shook their heads and rolled their eyes when I tried to explain our American Groundhog Day.
Most of us are familiar with Groundhog Day. Each Feb. 2 at Gobbler’s Knob near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a world-famous groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow to greet the new day. If the sun is bright, he’ll scuttle back into the safety of his burrow, having been frightened by his own shadow. According to legend this is a sign that there will be six more weeks of wintry weather before spring-like weather arrives to waken the slumbering countryside.
If, however, the morning skies are overcast on Feb. 2, Phil will not be frightened by his own shadow and will hang around to greet his admiring fans. The legend goes on to explain the non-frightened groundhog is a sign that spring-like weather will arrive early this year.
It’s all just a bit of fun, really, fun and theater which provide a spark of brightness on a day when spring seems to be so very far away. Neither Phil, nor his behavior, nor the most fervent human belief in the legend have any predictive power whatsoever. What actually will happen is inevitable. Our planet will continue orbiting the sun, and on or about March 20, it will reach that point in its orbit where, from the surface of Earth, the sun will have reached the midpoint of its northward march across the sky. This is the Vernal Equinox – the first day of spring. This year the moment of equinox arrives at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday, March 20.
During that dreary period of late winter between Feb. 2 and March 20 there will be a few mild, warm days and a few bitterly cold days. There will be sunshine and snow and ice, blustery conditions and still air, and perhaps even a bit of rain. As the sun continues to climb higher in the sky and the days continue to get longer the daily average temperature will gain about a degree per week as our northern hemisphere slowly warms. Depending on just what conditions the vast complexity of our climate delivers, the arrival of spring-like weather might come a week or so early or even a week or so late.
In other words, celestial spring will arrive on March 20, but the weather – including its “lateness” or “earliness” – will be exactly what our variable climate delivers, regardless of human interpretations of rodent behavior, nursery rhymes, or complex month-representative-date algorithms.
As I write this, we’ve very nearly arrived at March. It is often said that if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. In other words, if it’s cold and blustery at the beginning of the month, it should be warm and mild at the end of the month. It usually doesn’t work out that way here on the High Plains.
In early March, while the days are getting longer and nicer, the ground is still frozen under foot and the grasses are still dormant in their winter slumber. Over the next month the ground will thaw and the grasses (forbs too, of course) will begin to green up. In the meantime, however, it’s still winter.
March days are longer, and many are quite pleasant, but it’s not yet spring. The days can be delightful, but they can also be blisteringly cold and packed with heavy snow. With La Nina conditions continuing to prevail across the equatorial Pacific, meteorologists say we could be in for a wild weather ride including heavy spring blizzards.
Last week, I hiked out across the prairie on a wonderfully warm day. There was little if any wind, so the hiking was more than pleasant. The warm air was still wintry though, holding no olfactory hint of growing things.
When I hiked again two days later, things were entirely different. It was bitingly cold and snowing, with a mild but stinging south wind. I stayed off the prairie and stuck to the roads. As I trudged along, the snowfall stuck to my clothes, covering me in an even, white blanket. Soon I matched the world I walked in – a potentially dangerous condition, since there were a few cars and trucks out and about. I was plenty warm, so long as I kept hiking along at an exercise pace; the several layers of clothing I wore and continually-produced body hear saw to that.
As I hiked along I was struck once again at how very different this country can look in a single week.  One day I strode out across a brownish prairie, where windbreaks and yucca provided the only hints of color. I could see for miles in the clean, crisp air, and the sky was an enormous inverted bowl of cloudless blue. Then the weather changed, and I found myself hiking a winter landscape two days later. Snow was everywhere, covering nearly everything within my sight. Visibility was less than a quarter-mile, and falling snow blurred the world into a powdery softness.
Both hikes were enormously enjoyable, and each helped, in its way, to chase most of the winter “blah” from my soul. The nice day presaged spring, and the snowy day felt more like spring snow than winter snow.
Today I hiked the prairie again, and nearly all of last week’s abundant snow has gone. The ground is getting softer on top as winter’s frozen, vice-like grip begins to loosen in the soil. Still no green showing, but I did spot a grasshopper and a beetle out and about. The seasons, they are a changin.’
As I count the days down toward March, drawing ever closer to calving, I’ll continue to see signs of the annual rebirth of spring. It’s not here yet, and there’s still liable to be far too much snow left in the season, but that’s okay. It’s part of the deal here on the High Plains, and spring is within reach.