Volume 14, Issue 41 ~ October 12 - October 18, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Forecasting Winter

With nature’s clues, who needs weather people?

Days decrease.

And autumn grows, autumn is everything.

Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”: 1855

Right up front, I would remind Browning there are three other seasons of the year — winter, spring and summer — each with its unique blessings, thus autumn isn’t everything. But I concede the delights and the mysteries of this season prompt me to understand why a poet could be swept away by the glories of a season when, as days shorten, all life prepares for winter.

This is the time of year when, while enjoying the changing colors of our countryside, the cooler days and the harvests of the fields, we cannot help but attempt to decode the symbolic signals of autumn. What will winter be like?

In days of yore when snow came earlier, stayed longer and remained whiter, the price to pay for energy to keep warm was, for many citizens, of much less concern than in these times. It was pay a little more, bundle up a little tighter and enjoy the wonders of winter.

I was reminded of this the other day when rifling through the vegetable bins at Lauer’s, a supermarket up here in Riviera Beach in Northern Anne Arundel County. Alongside me was a lady who appeared about my age, which is far from young, checking out the onions.

As we chatted, she examined not the fancy red and white onions but just plain yellowish onions. With her forefinger, she dug lightly into one. I figured she was checking for a soft spot.

“Hope your house is warm,” she said as she abruptly changed the subject and put the onion almost under my nose. “It’s going to be a bad winter.”

Before I could ask what a common onion had to do with winter, I had an answer. She said her father had told her that thick onion skins promised a cold winter. Once a farm boy myself, I’d never heard that.

But as soon as I returned to my home on the shores of Stoney Creek, I began a search in my reference books. In Albert Lee’s Weather Wisdom I found:

Onion skins very thin

Mild winter coming in,

Onion skins very tough,

Winter’s coming cold and rough.

Forecasting from Stoney Creek

Then something struck me. The oldest and by far the tallest of the three black walnut trees in the north yard carried fewer, but bigger, nuts this autumn. Really, they are as big or bigger than tennis balls. Also, in their fresh green covering, they’re almost the same color.

Could it be? I hastened to the yard, where it took a few minutes to find one of the gargantuan walnuts. With my trusty Swiss Army blade, I dug into the outer shell — and soon found the exceptionally hard, dark-brown inner shell was no larger than ordinary. All that added diameter was the softer and bitter insulation-type covering, which stains the fingers when one tries to dig down to the shell of the real nut and its unique flavor. I speculated:

When bigger black walnuts grow

Expect in winter lots of snow.

No, I didn’t find that in Weather Wisdom or any other meteorology volumes among my reference shelves. But since I was a boy, the fruit of the mighty black walnut has been my barometer of mast crops depended on by wild turkeys, ruffed grouse and squirrels. Good crops, good hunting; bad crops, bad hunting.


Incidentally, the walnuts-in-my-yard approach at figuring what’s available for hunting faces a challenge this year. While my trees are virtually bare of nuts, word is that in the free ranging woodlands, the acorn and hickory nuts are in abundance. In the 30-some years I’ve lived on the banks of Stoney Creek, I’ve not had such slim pickings. Nor have the resident squirrels.

But bushytails can be innovative; though they prefer nuts, lacking them they can find other munchies. The changing wet and dry weather of late has created a few mushrooms in the south lawn. The other day I noted two squirrels munching on the same morel as if they were hogs working a truffle.

Also a target of the squirrels are the clusters of black fruit on the tall pokeberry weeds that sprouted up amidst some ornamental bushes in front of the house. I presume they were planted via bird droppings. They appeared while I was wheelchair-bound with a broken hip and unable to nip them in the bud.

By the time I was sufficiently mobile to check things out around the lawn, the berries showed signs of ripening. I knew they were favored by mockingbirds, cardinals and catbirds among others, so the big weed got a reprieve. They also have nostalgic value; memories.

When in the seventh grade and inkwells were on classroom desks, during my periodic assignments of filling them, I sometimes made ink from these and other berries to fill the well on the desk of Phyllis, who had caught my fancy. While others dipped their pens in black ink, Phyllis wrote in a distinctive dark, purplish-blue-back. Until the teacher, a stern man with no appreciation of budding romance, put an end to my efforts to impress my intended.

Gone to Catch a Goose

As for what will winter be like, we know it’ll be long and cold for the New York Yankees. But lacking from this corner are any clues other than that onion skin. I haven’t seen a woolly bear caterpillar of late to note whether the black band is wider, to bring the same winter as does a thick onion skin.

So any folklore predictions from this corner must be deferred until Nov. 16, and then only if I’m lucky enough to pot a Canada goose. That’s when the Maryland season opens for honkers, and to early settlers their bones were harbingers of winter:

If the November goose bone be thick,

So will the winter weather be;

If the November goose bone be thin,

So will the winter weather be.

Only trouble is, I’ve no goose bones from previous years to judge thick or thin because I’ve never before associated honkers with weather. Yet all is not lost. There’s another slant on geese. A row of dark spots on a goose bone is a sure sign of a bad winter.

If you, dear reader, have any nature-related indicators of what winter will be like, I’d like to hear them. Maybe if we pool our observations, we can put out of business the media weather forecasters who, via wolf cries, send hordes to the convenience shops to stock up on necessities, while the rest of us merely put another log on the fire.

Meanwhile, they’re predicting a mild winter. Enough said.

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