26 June 2012

Don't leave home without your umbrella if the bindweed has closed its flowers, swallows are flying low and there's a smell of drains - weather forecasting the traditional way .....

One of the most frequently asked questions must be: 'What's the weather going to do?'.  Nowadays, we get the answer from radio, TV, phone and websites but, in times past, forecasting was a do-it-yourself activity.
By reading the skies and observing the countryside, people - especially farmers, fishermen, shepherds and sailors - discovered all kinds of predictors and gradually amassed a treasury of weather wisdom.  Modern meteorology has since shown that although some of this weather lore is superstitious nonsense, much of it is not.
Since weather clearly comes from above, the heavens are an obvious starting point as Shakespeare confirms in Richard II: Men judge by the complexion of the sky / The state and inclination of the day.

Another version goes this way: 
Evening red and morning grey / Set the traveller on his way;
Evening grey and morning red / Bring down rain upon his head.

This popular prediction, available in many versions, highlights the fact that a rosy-hued sunset - not a fierce, fiery glow - indicates clear skies stretching far into the west, where most of our weather comes from.  In contrast, a red sunrise in the east suggests that fine weather is moving away.

The moon is another sign in the sky about the weather.  A clear moon means a dry day, but if it shines weakly or has a hazy halo, rain follows.

Clouds can also bring good or bad news.  Small, fluffy cumulus clouds are associated with sunny weather:  If woolly fleeces spread the heavenly way / Be sure no rain disturbs the summer day. But if they mass together and swell up into 'rocks and towers, the earth's refreshed by frequent showers'.  At much higher altitudes, the stippling of a mackerel sky and feathery mares' tails 'make tall ships carry low sails' - advisedly, since both these wispy formations herald unsettled conditions, even storms.

When rain does fall, if it's 'from the east, two days at least'.  However, if it comes from the west - much more common - then 'rain before seven, clear by eleven' often holds true.  This is because rain belts, crossing the country eastwards, generally move quite quickly.  For confirmation that rain is over, trust only a evening rainbow: with your back to the sun, this will be in the east, indicating that the rain has probably passed.  Whereas 'a dog (rainbow) in the morning, sailor take warning' for here the rainbow lies westwards and so the rain is oncoming.

Plants and animals are another source of information about the weather.  Various flowers warn that rain is imminent by closing their petals.  One of the prettiest prophets, the tiny scarlet pimpernel, is actually called the poor man's weather glass.  Others include the dandelion, marsh marigold, anemone, gentian and convolvulus.  
Pondweed tends to sink before rain, while seaweed feels moist - possibly because the salt in its fronds readily absorbs any humidity.  Whatever the science, seaweed has long served as a natural barometer: a piece hung up by the door becomes dry and shrivelled during find weather, but plump and damp as rain approaches.

Some trees also give notice of wet weather: When the leaves show their undersides / Be very sure that rain betides.  The increasing moisture in the air softens the leaf stalks, causing the leaves themselves to turn over - a phenomenon associated particularly with poplar, sycamore, plane and lime.

Animal Behaviour
Animals, too, are sensitive to atmospheric change and, in many cases, their behaviour yields useful weather clues.  To begin with, nature tends to get noisier when rain threatens.  Blackbirds sing shrilly, woodpeckers laugh loudly, barn owls shriek and and screech, frogs croak and as for donkeys: Hark! I hear the asses bray; / We shall have some rain today.
There is a general air of restlessness and a reluctance to go far from home.  Bees stay in or near their hive, cattle move off hill-tops, pheasants roost early and rise late, while rooks either remain in their nests or tumble down to ground level.  Fine weather of course, reverses these behaviour patterns: When bees to distance wing their flight / Days are warm and skies are bright.

In such conditions, many birds take to the heavens.  This is especially true of swallows: Swallows high, staying dry / Swallows low, wet 'twill blow. The reason is that in settled weather swallows can find insects to eat high up, but in poor weather, only near the ground.

The contrast between good and bad weather behaviour is very noticeable in pigs.  According to legend, pigs can see the wind.  This is such a fearful experience that an approaching storm causes pigs to rush around in a frenzy, tossing sticks and straws hither and thither:  When pigs carry sticks/ The clouds will play tricks; / When they lie in the mud, / No fears of a flood.

Spiders deserve a special mention as their webs - constantly monitored - provide an up-to-the-minute forecast.  When conditions promise to be warm and dry, spiders industriously spin a large web, but if bad weather looms they keep their webs small, or even destroy them.

Alongside animal and plant indicators, there are various everyday omens of eather change.  When rain is on the way, ditches and drains stink, stone walls and floors sweat, rheumatic pain worsens, ropes made of natural fibres shrink, smoke hangs in the air, soot falls down the chimney and distant landscapes seem clear and close.
In the past, lists of signs were put together in easy-to-learn poems.  The following extract is from one such poem, by Erasmus Darwin - Charles' grandfather:  The walls are damp, the ditches smell / Closed is the pink-eyed pimpernel. / Hark! How the chairs and tables crack. / Old Betty's joints are on the rack . . . / Loud quack the ducks, the peacocks cry, / The distant hills are looking nigh . . .

Red sunsets, cotton-wool clouds, croaking frogs, damp flagstones . .. signs like these all relate to today and tomorrow and, for short-term forecasting, traditional weather lore is relative reliable.  But long-range predictions are a different matter.  
Often, sayings that look beyond are really about the present or past.  For example, country lore holds that when rooks build their nests high in the tree tops, the summer will be good.  More prosaically, it shows that conditions were calm at nesting time and also that last year's rookery had survived the winter and could be refurbished satisfactorily.

Oak before Ash
And then there's the belief that holly trees laden with berries herald a hard winter.  Not so. The abundance of berries reflects mild, moist weather in the preceding spring and summer.  Similarly, Oak before ash, only a splash; Ash before oak, expect a soak, highlights past not future weather.  If autumn and winter have been wet, the oak is always in leaf before the ash - and summer will not necessarily be dry.
Equally doubtful are predictions associated with specific days. The most famous of these, dating from the 10th century, recalls how St Swithin caused a 40-day downpour in protest at his remains being transferred from a graveyard to inside Winchester Cathedral.  In consequence, rain on St Swithin's feast, 15 July, is said to guarantee rain for the next 40 days.  Records reveal otherwise.

Many saints' days and religious festivals have similar links with the weather, however all are unproven.  A random selection shows that a fine St Paul's day (25 January) ensures a year of good weather, while Ash Wednesday's wind lasts throughout Lent; conditions on Ascension Day prefigure the autumn and 'as at Catherine (25 November) foul or fair, so will be next February'.

Even some non-religious days were thought to be significant, like 1 January.  One very old tradition defines the year's weather according to which day of the week it starts.   
Almost as improbably are sayings that link one month to another, such as 'a warm October, a cold February', 'as November, so March', or 'a wet June makes a dry September'.

A few long-range predictions, however, do contain an element of truth.  Take: 'If there's ice in November to hear a duck / There'll be nothing after but sludge and muck'.   Following a very cold spell in November, the ground is unlikely to thaw properly and winter's wet weather will certainly create plenty of 'sludge and muck'.  

And then there is the well-known warning that 'when March comes in like a lamb, it goes out like a lion'  (or vice versa).  March, at the end of the northern hemisphere winter, does experience very variable weather.

Dr Johnson once said that when English people meet, their 'first talk is of the weather' - undoubtedly because it is so varied.  That same diversity has given us a wealth of weather wisdom which, like much traditional lore, retains some relevance.  In these days of global warming and climate change, it's worth recalling a saying that emphasises the weather's capacity to sort itself out: Be  it dry or be it wet, The weather'll always pay its debt'.
From an article by Catherine Dell

See also: The Rough Guide to Weather by Robert Henson (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rough-Guide-Weather-Robert-Henson/dp/1858288274)

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