I don’t know about y’all, but the older I get, the more my old bones are affected by the damp and cold. Weather like we’ve been having this week really makes me move stiffly and slowly. When I was young, I thought nothing of falling over while ice-skating, or diving for volleyballs and softballs, or trying to slide to home base. I used to laugh when my older friends said they could feel the rain or cold coming, based on an ache or pain in their joints. But a hard whack to my right knee, during a rafting trip in my 30’s, really set me back. Now that I experience exactly what they were talking about, I don’t laugh! I always say, “It’s the old & the cold that gets me now”. Anyone else get out of bed creaking and hobbling on cold, wet mornings? I do! Every time the cold weather really kicks in and the temperature tanks, I think about black woolly caterpillars.
Now Shelley, something must be wrong with your ability to reason. Maybe the cold temps have effected your noggin? No my friends. Let me explain by telling you how it began.
My friend Brownie used to talk about dark woolly caterpillars all the time. Brownie was an older man, a life-long farmer, from Trousdale County, Tn. In his eighties when he passed, he was one of the smartest and best men I’ve ever known. Brownie had a deep understanding of farming, the weather, and people. He had a way of dropping little acorns of knowledge onto my path (in the form of storytelling), while we were working on other things, gardening, or helping with church fundraisers. Inevitably, I was so fascinated by his stories that I didn’t realize the time passing, and the tasks quickly becoming finished. He had learned, from years of observing nature around him, the signs of the weather and the seasons, what to do, and when.
Despite growing up in the country life, I thought Brownie was wonderfully smart. He was quiet, a natural observer, a studier. He had a southern accent slow, like honey, he could grow a 15 pound cabbage, and play horseshoes like a champion, throwing a ringer every time. He’d been farming since his childhood, during the depression. He could buck-dance without moving his arms. He remembered the night his little sister was born in their house, and how scared he was. He knew when rain was coming. He knew about things. He said several things that I think I will always remember. “Two things I’da never believed if a man said it. That he’d never told a lie, and that he and his wife had never had a fuss.”
He also said, “Look for woolly caterpillars in the fall. The darker they are, the rougher winter we’re going to have.” At the time, I wasn’t sure if he was telling me the truth, or pulling my leg. Turns out he was right!
Recently, I read an article, written by The Old Farmer’s Almanac, confirming (scientifically)that the story Brownie told me was true. According to the article, Dr. C.H. Curran, the curator of insects at the Museum of Natural History, noticed a pattern among woolly “bear” caterpillars and the weather, after a trip to the countryside with his wife during 1948. In subsequent years, he made studies by collecting the caterpillars and observing how their black stripes grew in size when the weather grew colder. Other scientists have since confirmed his observations, but still don’t understand why it happens. I found it fascinating that scientists confirmed what farmers had known for years, but still don’t understand why. When temperatures plummet, the number of black hairs on a woolly caterpillar increases.
The reasons will remain one of God’s little mysteries, for now at least. The story of dark woolly caterpillars makes for a great true nature tale for kiddos, especially when you pair them with a winter memory of your own. Now that you know what to look for.
What a wonderful teacher Brownie was, in so many ways. Now I see that he was teaching me by storytelling, while we were working. He was passing on what he had learned, and he was helping make our work lighter by keeping me entertained. I wish I had know him longer, there are so many things I’d like to ask him now. The things he taught me, I’m still working on- to observe more, say less, work hard, help when you can, and appreciate simple things. I think he’d be pleased I’m still trying.
Look for those little fuzzy caterpillars next fall, and you’ll see what I mean.
Peace & Blessings
ps-here is the link for the article, in case you’d like to read it for yourself.