During the Great Depression, until my father was in his preteens, he lived in Aroostook County where a grandfather and other old timers taught him to predict weather the old-timers’ way – by observing natural signs.
After World War II, he earned a pilot’s license in Augusta and flew Piper Cubs and Cessnas. The license required learning basic scientific weather forecasting.
My father’s knowledge of natural weather signs such as wind direction, cloud formations, dew (or lack of it), air clarity and sun color at dawn and eveningc v helped him use his new-found scientific knowledge to understand why nature signs worked the way they did. He often explained the reasons to me, a child who flew with him and hung on every word.
For example, morning dew means weather will be good that day. Why? When the temperature falls to the dew point overnight, which occurs mostly on clear nights, dew forms. No morning dew promises rain before evening, and like many natural signs, ancient ditties describe them:
“When morning dew covers grass, fair weather will come to pass (that day)/No morning dew means rain before night.” Conversely, “When grass is dry at night/it will rain before morning light.”
When birds hang low to the ground, a storm is near. The ditty: “Crows on fence/rain will go hence.” “Crows on ground/rain will come down.” These work with myriad bird species.
This ditty is accurate: “Red sky in morning/sailors take warning/Red sky at night/sailors’ delight.” The “red” means both sun and sky.
A ring around the moon brings rain or snow, and speaking of the moon, when it’s in the crescent stage we may be able to see the new moon flush to the inside of the crescent, and the shadowed part looks like a film negative. This sign forecasts fair weather will prevail for 24 to 48 hours.
Two signs at the same time really work for accurate predictions, and one example is common this month. If the setting sun looks blood red, and wind blows into the state from the southwest, the next day is often blistering hot. The red sun predicts a mostly cloudless sky the following day, and the wind brings hot, usually humid air from the south.
Wind really helps predict weather, particularly when one or two other signs follow. For instance, one ditty says, “When the wind blows from the west/the weather is best.” If that west wind also has morning dew, it’ll be a great beach day.
A southwest wind in Maine often brings much hotter weather, but in spring it often means great salmon and trout fishing. Before salmon fishing collapsed in Long Pond in the Belgrade Lakes, a southwest wind meant blistering-fast fishing.
In fact, a ditty covers fishing during a straight south wind. “When the wind comes from the south/it blows food into the fishes’ mouths.”
But when the wind blows from the south, it often means bad weather soon. A south wind is often switching to the east sooner than later, and as the old saying goes, “When the wind blows from the east/’Tis fit for neither man nor beast.”
These wind ditties go back to ancient wind rhymes from the Elizabethan period, and two go like this: “When smoke goes east, good weather is certain/When smoke goes west, fair weather is past.” The first line refers to west winds pushing smoke east.
Cloud formations predict weather, and my father learned plenty about clouds while training as a pilot. These observations begin with ancient ditties such as “Mackerel scales and mares’ tails/make lofty ships carry low sails.”
Occasional clouds shaped like mares’ tails against a blue sky mean fair weather, but myriad, thick mares’ tails across the sky portend bad weather. Audubon has a fine cloud guidebook.
If distant objects have great clarity – say an ocean horizon or Mount Washington, a storm is coming. The air is unstable, so natural haze no longer softens the lines on these sights.
Here’s a final tip: Bovines stand instinctively into the wind. If the critters all point west, it predicts good weather. All pointing south, rain is coming. All east, rain will come soon. If cows and steers point into multiple directions all at once, the air is unstable and swirling from all directions, so rain will fall soon – within 12 to 24 hours.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at