"You sure y'all want to go traipsing around in the woods today?" asked the Virginia cattleman. His tone made the hikers wonder what he knew that they didn't.
"I guess you city boys weren't up early enough to see the sunrise this morning, but the sky was the reddest I've seen in quite awhile. I even saw a sundog. You boys ever see a sundog?"
"Nope. What's a sundog?"
The farmer went on to describe what the hikers would later learn from a dictionary was a parhelion - a bright spot of refracted light on the horizon that looks like a second sun. As to the significance of a sundog plus red sky, the farmer explained: "It's an indication of falling weather. It'll be closing in before long. I'd say around noon."
The hikers replied with a smile that the weather report had said there would be rain, sure enough, but not before late that night. As they began their climb into the Blue Ridge foothills, the farmer called after them with a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: "Some are weatherwise, others are otherwise."
Shortly before noon the first gentle sprinkle began, then heavy rain soaked and chilled them as theyscurried downhill to their car and made an embarrassed detour around the farmer's house.
Heading back to Washington's controlled environment of indoor living, they resolved to learn a thing or two about weather. It's a wise resolution for anyone who ventures outdoors in search of sport.
From times when most Americans went outdoors to work, there remains a legacy of weather folklore. Over the years, indeed centuries, the weather's sign language was translated, through observation and inductive reasoning, into mnemonic aphorisms.
"Wind change, weather change." This ageless adage, the truth of which modern meteorologists confirm, remains foolproof. And it's simple enough: If the smoke from your campfire is curling straight up there is no wind and there will no change in the weather, whether it's dry or wet. If the smoke blows steadily in one direction, there will also be no weather change until the smoke veers.
Clear weather usually comes with winds from the northwest, west or southwest in this part of the country. But the dry northwest winds, as most Washingtonians learned last winter, are also coldest. Thus there's some truth in the old wives' phrase, "too cold to snow."
Southern, eastern and northeastern winds can be counted on to unsettle weather. Thus, since cattle graze with their tails to the wind, the following folk saying is axiomatic: "A cow with tail to the west/makes weather the best/A Cow with tail to the east/makes weather the least."
For a more nuanced and precise indication of what the winds will bring, read the clouds. Each cloud - as expressed by the seemingly endless combinations of Latin morphemes ("Cirro" meaning high, "cumulus" for heap, "alto" fr middle, "stratus" for layer) - has a story to tell.
Experienced Chesapeake Bay sailors often deck their walls with the cloud charts of the late Louis D. Rubin of Richmond, who used his hobby of cloud photography to develop a weather prediction system based on the dimension, shape, composition, luminosity, elevation, color and size of clouds.
For those whose knapsacks are full enough withoutcloud charts and whose Latin is rusty or never was, the old rhymes serve almost as well:
"Mackerel skies and mares' tails/Make tail ships carry low sails." Like streaks on a mackerel's back, the rows of small, fleecy clouds called altocumulus protend rain or squalls within 15 to 20 hours, as do the cirrocumulus clouds that resemble the fluff of a horse's tail.
"When white clouds cover the heavenly way/no rain will mar your plans that way." This refers to billowy cumulus clouds that often dot blue skies on a good day. These high clouds indicate dry air and high barometric pressure.
"In the morning mountains/In the evening fountains." When the fair weather cumulus clouds build up vertically, they turn into cumulus congestus or cumulonimbus, which usually bring afternoon thunderstorms.
"When moon or sun is in its house/Likely there will be rain without." The metaphoric "house" refers to the cirrostratus or altostratus clouds that sometimes form a halo around the moon or sun. There will be precipitation within 24 hours if the wind is steady from the northeast to south.
Beyond what a weather-eye can infer from the clouds, the other senses may become weatherwise as well. Some people can "feel rain in their bones" when barometric pressure drops, as surely as other people's curly hair frizzles when the air becomes moisture-laden. So, too, wood-handled axe heads tighten as the wood swells.
Some country folk claim they can actually "hear bad weather coming." They're probably not exaggerating, for distant sounds, such as the hoot of an owl, become more distinct with increasing dampness.
Smells help pronosticate as well: "When the ditch offends the nose/ Look for rain and stormy blows." A storm's low atmospheric pressure literally lightens the air's weight, which in turn releases trapped swamp and marsh odors.
"The farther the sight/The nearer the rain." Haze on a hot summer day indicates surface water evaporation into a dry atmosphere; while, contrary to conventional wisdom, a clear sky and good visibility on the marine horizon indicate unstable mixing of the humid air.
Observing animals, whose ties to nature haven't been superseded by central heat and air-conditioning, is another sure weather indicator. Insect-eating birds, such as swallows and swifts, fly closer to the ground when a storm is approaching, but other birds are prone to roost under the same weather conditions. Both avian foreshadowings, according to weather folklorist Eric Sloane, are due to the lowering air density and falling barometric pressure, which makes it harder to fly.
And it doesn't take super powers of observation to notice that flies seems to bite more and meaner immediately before a rain. At least a partial explanation for this, says Sloane, is that more body odor is released when atmospheric pressure is low.
Gordon Barnes, WTOP's weatherman, remembers his boyhood in Bermuda when the best hurricane forecaster was the puppy shark: Oil from the shark's liver was corked in a bottle; good weather was foreseen if the oil stayed clear; if it grew milky on the bottle's bottom, a storm was on its way, and if it became milky throughout, a hurricane was brewing.
"God protects his own," said Barnes. "Since puppy sharks normally live off coral reefs in shallow water, there must be a physiological change in the liver when a hurricane is near that sends that sharks into deeper water."
Barnes said he knew September that it would be a cold winter: "Squirrels are supposed to be noisy if the coming winter's mild. The squirrels around our house were so busy, I didn't hear a thing."
But Barnes, of course, won't go so far as to suggest that his job as radio and television weatherman isn't essential. To the contrary, his advice to outdoorsmen who need to know the weather: "Take a transistor radio wherever you go."