‘Look at those cows,” I said to the woman driving a sporty little car one evening. “It’ll be blistering hot tomorrow.”

We were passing a pasture where two dozen cows beside the road faced southwest. She was driving but looked at me for several seconds before rolling her big blue eyes and saying, “Oh, cows are telling you the weather now.”

And, yes, as weird as it may sound, the cows were helping with the forecast, based on a scientific principle. Bovines instinctively face into the wind, so the direction they point tells an observer which way it’s blowing. Knowing this gives us an idea of what to expect in the near future.

A southwest wind in Maine often brings scorching, humid weather, and in fact, Keith Carson, a meteorologist on WCSH-TV, recently predicted high heat and humidity for the next day based partially on a southwest wind pumping air here from the south.

Also, that evening, two other signs promised a hot day:

First, the thermometer had risen into the 90s that afternoon, a weather pattern that would hold at least a day or more. Second, the setting sun looked blood red, an accurate fair-weather sign, covered by an ancient ditty:

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;

“Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”

Sometimes cows in a field point in differing directions, which often predicts a storm because unstable air, the forerunner of inclement weather, swirls from several directions.

My father, an airplane pilot, learned scientific weather forecasting with his training, and during my youth, my neighbor, a great uncle and subsistence farmer, taught me pod-auger-day weather predicting to go with my father’s teachings — a wonderful way to grow up.

Before meteorologists did it for us, past generations observed natural phenomena such as wind direction, dew or lack of it, and many more natural signs. They used these signs to forecast weather, and they made up ditties, describing what each one meant.

“When wind blows from the west,

“The weather is its very best.”

Wind blows from the west after a high-pressure system replaces low pressure, so cows pointing west often predict fair weather for a day or more.

“When wind blows from the south,

“The storm lies in its mouth.”

Wind usually starts swinging to the south when a storm is approaching. One notable exception to this south-wind rule involves river valleys and long lakes that lie north-south. These often change a west wind to south, which can blow for days from that direction without kicking up a storm.

When wind reaches the east, rain or snow often falls, covered by a ditty:

“When wind blows from the east,

“Weather is fit for neither man nor beast.”

Northwest winds often bring unseasonably cool weather, and in late evening, a northwest wind makes the western horizon turquoise, a sure sign the thermometer will be dropping. This often means brutal cold in late fall.

Dew or lack of it often predicts sunshine, described by a ditty:

“When dew covers morning grass,

“Rain seldom comes to pass.”

This sign tells us it will be fair that day. Lack of dew gives us a relatively certain warning of rain before sunset.

Clouds foretell weather often enough, and a favorite one follows:

“Mackerel scales and mares’ tails

“Make lofty ships carry low sails.”

Cirrus clouds look like a horse’s tail, and lots of these wispy curls along with dense cirro-cumulous clouds that look like the pattern on the sides of mackerel often predict rain within 12 hours or less. Occasional cirrus clouds without cirro-cumulous predict fair weather, though.

The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather covers cloud formations and the weather they bring us, a great resource.

Approaching low-pressure systems help sound travel well, and a ditty touches upon this observation for forecasting rain:

“A stormy day will betide,

“When sound travels far and wide.”

The last observation offers a certain danger unless observers check it from the safety of a home or vehicle. Thunderstorms often travel from west to east, so with a compass to get the exact reading, folks can draw an imaginary line from east to west through their position. If an approaching thunderstorm hovers on that line or north of it, expect the storm to hit. If a storm is approaching south of the line, it usually misses.

Folks must beware, though. The first storm just south of the line may miss, but a second storm might be north of it and unleash unrelenting fury.

Weather forecasting the old timers’ way is not an exact science. Please do not bet your life on it, particularly with thunderstorms.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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