THROUGH THE WOODS: The importance of clouds

Photo contributed

SUMMER AND GOOD WEATHER meant lots of work and hectic times on our farms. Farmers always have an eye on the weather, and this was instilled in us at a young age. When work was done, and we had a play time we often took a rest and lay on our backs in the grass and looked up at the sky. Up there is an ever-changing scene and on a clear day with big puffy clouds it was irresistible not to search for animals, people or other shapes lurking in those clouds. By the time we argued over whether it was a horse, a cow, or a dog, it would transform and the whole thing was gone. Our imaginations went wild, and it was always a fun form of entertainment.

My grandfather kept our attention with his sayings and ways of predicting weather, and he constantly said them until we were sure to know them. We learned the high, wispy mare’s tails clouds that predicted rain within about a day. A mackerel sky had slightly lower clouds that looked kind of spotty and meant it would rain in less than 24 hours, particularly if the cows were lying down in the field. If there was a “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” and if there was a “red sky at night, sailors delight.” Those red skies in the morning often brought bad storms by late afternoon.

During the day we watched the sky and checked the wind direction to see if thunderheads were building up or a sudden change in wind might clue us to coming rain. Then we would be racing to cover the loads of hay with heavy canvas tarps and tie them down tight to the wagon posts. At the same time, the men would be baling up dry hay and trying to get it into the wagons and into the barn. We all had a job at these times. I usually got to climb the wagons and tie the canvasses. As I got older, I might have been raking the hay for the person baling or hauling hay back to the barns. During this we always watched the sky. We had to fill the barns with hay each year so there would be enough hay for the cattle during the winter. It was vital to our existence. If the dry hay got wet, it would turn black and mold which made it inedible or could possibly make us and the stock sick to breathe it. Another problem was that damp or green hay could spontaneously combust and burn down a barn. If the black ruined hay was left on the field, it would smother the grass beneath it and decrease the amount of hay obtained at the next cutting. In a good year we might get three crops of hay from a field.

Back then things were more primitive and our ability to cut hay was limited, so if we lost some it wasn’t a huge amount, usually just part of a field. I see huge tractors and machinery now that can mow a whole farm in a day. They also can get it in much easier and faster, but it still makes me nervous to see it. And I still check those clouds.

We had TV in the 1950s and usually listened to the weather reports. I never understood how they made their predictions because my grandfather was much better at it. I once told my grandfather he should apply for a job as a weatherman on Chanel 6, since he was so good. He laughed and smiled down at me and told me to look at the corn leaves pointing up to the sky. When they dried a little and curled up, sure enough it would rain. At the same time, he would point out that the robins were singing a special song. They were looking up at the sky and “calling for rain.”

The TV weather forecasters are much better now, but I still remember my grandfather, and what he taught me still works. The robins have been looking up and singing that special song again. I think I will put the spare umbrella in the car tonight.

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