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Persimmons? Caterpillars? Ozarks Ancestors Handed Down a Slew of Weather Predictors

Missouri Department of Conservation

With Halloween just past, and all these other holidays stacked up here as the year comes around toward the close, I’ve just realized there’s one that should be on the calendar about here, but it isn’t. It might fit best on the weather calendar, because every single year in the Ozarks, somewhere in the middle of our weather going through its seasonal acrobatics, on or about Halloween or thereabouts, there are persimmons in the forecast.No kidding. Just bear with me.

Now I recognize that we who live within the reach of my radio voice are mostly descendants of dozens of cultural tribes who share a fascination with weather, from the Celts to the Cro-Magnons and everybody in between, and especially those who immigrated to America and settled these particular ancient hills. And they all brought with them their own folklore and backwoods wisdom. It takes just a wee bit of poking around to reveal that a good many of us even today are prone to believing some really wild weather notions that come out of the long ago.

I expect nearly all of us have heard somewhere that the size of the black bands on the back of a wooly caterpillar will tell us how long and hard a winter to expect. It won’t, actually, but it will tell us how old the caterpillar is (the orange bands expand with age, or so I’m told.) Others count the severity of the coming winter by how many acorns the oak trees drop, or how many pine cones the pine trees grow, or how high in the tree we find the pine cones or hornets’ nests.

Now those of us who are very attuned to the seasons (or who have a Missouri Department of Conservation calendar handy) may note that the Geese are flying south, the crickets and the mice are coming indoors and the squirrels are storing food, all of them doing what they do Noticeably earlier than is usual.

There actually might be something to that. After all, they’re far more familiar with their natural world than we are with ours. My most reliable sign, now that I have a computer and frequent Facebook, is the arrival of numerous offers of friendship and more by a covey of elderly white male gents, nearly all of them rugged sportsman types or naval officers, nearly all of them appearing to be from the same litter (or same model agency), and all of them evidently sharing the same hallucination in which I am somehow simultaneously 76 years old and young and attractive. And available. And interested. My theory is that with winter approaching they’re migrating toward any possible cozy crashpad to get in out of the weather with someone who’s old enough to have some loot stashed away and young enough to get around well enough to make their free dinner. And dumb or desperate enough to fall for their pretty lady baloney. Good grief, guys. Get a life.

But I digress. What I was getting at before demonstrating that I am old enough to occasionally wander off, was our dear folkways and their relationship to weather forecasting.

And here I am back to my point. You see, in the Ozarks, when we want to know what the winter holds in store for us, we ask a persimmon. Yes. You heard right. Of course, first you have to have access to a persimmon tree. Now if you plan to eat the persimmons you should wait until after a frost, because until they’re either dead ripe or frosted, they’ll show you why they got the nickname ChokeApple.

So - you gather you some persimmons, eat a few, then take two or three of those seeds you spit out and slice them open on the flat side. Inside you’ll find a tiny embryo and that sign you’re looking for. If the embryo is shaped like a knife, it is said, then winter will be characterized by sharp, bitter winds and ice. If it’s a fork, the winter will be mild, with a little light, dry snow now and then. And if it’s a spoon, look for heavy snow, all you’d want and more. Everybody I’ve talked to has been coming up all spoons this year. So we’ll see.

Now I don’t know if this works. I know persimmons are a tasty addition to cookies and make a heavenly pudding. But as for weather predictors, the only reliable one I know of is to ask the bees. If they’re pouring cheerily out of the hive entrance, it’s probably going to be a pleasant day. If they’re all going in, it’s probably going to rain, or maybe storm. And if they’re shoving the other bees aside trying to make their way inside first, and all the birds are silent and seem to be taking cover, then you probably should too.

So, Years ago there was a weatherman by the name of C.C. Williford who aired his forecasts on KWTO in Springfield, and he had a pretty good reputation. But the story he told on himself was that he heard of a fellow down in Stone County somewhere that had a near perfect knack for predicting the weather. So C. C. decided he’d go down there and see if the old fellow would share his secret. He found the man, and without telling the man who he was, asked if he would mind telling him just how he predicted the weather with such accuracy. The fellow nodded and said, “Well, sir, there ain’t nuthin’ to it. I just listen to what that fool on the radio says, and I say the opposite.”

This is Marideth Sisco, still trying to decide which way the wind blows or the persimmon seed grows, here in These Ozarks Hills.

(And if you want a recipe for that pudding, go to Jim Long’s Garden Blogspot by clicking here. He’s a better cook than me.)

Marideth is a Missouri storyteller, veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician and student of folklore focusing on stories relevant to Ozarks culture and history. Each month, she’s the voice behind "These Ozarks Hills.” Sisco spent 20 years as an investigative and environmental writer for the West Plains Quill and was well known for her gardening column, “Crosspatch,” on which her new book is based. Sisco was a music consultant and featured singer in the 2010 award-winning feature film “Winter's Bone.”