In his essay about why he farms, posted here a few days ago, John Finlayson refers to how a city worker in a big downtown office is so far removed from nature that he is hardly aware when a storm might be passing over him. That observation really rang true for me. One of the most troubling aspects of my life years ago working in big downtown office buildings or attending conferences in big hotel complexes, was that I knew all hell could be breaking loose outside and I would hardly know it. Home was an hour away by commuter train or, if I were on the road, who knows how far away. Brought up with my teeth to the biting wind, weather was the constant reality, I knew its dangers and terribly resented the fact that I could not be home with my wife and children all the time. Fellow workers in the big building society seemed to have no notion of this kind of concern. I knew I didn’t belong there. Maybe no one did.
Farmers are sometimes called sodbusters, but we really should be known as skywatchers. We keep one eye cocked on the sky at all times. Now in July with the usual summer dry spell in place, we will discern, decant, delineate, dissect and try to decipher every wisp of cloud that appears on the horizon, hoping to extract some hint of rain on the way. Rain in July is gold in our part of Ohio when the soil gets as dry as last year’s dog-gnawed ham bones. Two rain-sodden months ago, we studied the clouds for some hint of blue sky. Now when an inch of rain would mean literally thousands of more dollars for every grain and pasture farm in the county, we anxiously pan the heavens for what the weather forecasters call “pop up” showers. Pop ups are maddening. They always seem to fall on someone else’s farm. We track the progress of pop ups by silhouetting telephone poles or trees against the storm front to see which way the clouds are moving. I like to joke that pop-ups always seem to fall on the richest farmers in the county. If you have enough farms, one of them is bound to be the recipient of spotty July showers. I had an uncle, just down the road, now passed away, who said we never got pop-ups in our neighborhood because one of the neighbors had a habit of working on Sunday and we all got punished for it.
During haymaking, skywatching becomes an hourly ordeal. The weather forecasters are of little help because while they can predict fairly well what is going to happen today and maybe tomorrow, they are no more infallible than the Pope on what will happen two days from now which is what we need to know if we are going to cut hay today. So skywatchers bring to bear on the subject every smidgen of folklore and fact that they know. Sun dogs, rings around the moon, rainbows, thunderheads, mares’ tails, mackerel skies, whirlwinds, fair weather cumulative clouds, black rain clouds, clouds that build during the day, clouds that diminish in the evening— we are an authority on the sky and its aberrations All have their significance surely as accurate as “50 percent change of rain.”
I became a skywatcher early in life. In grade school one day, the teacher asked if anyone knew what direction the wind was in at the moment. To my surprise, I was the only one who raised a hand. Reason was, I hated doing chores in cold weather— no insulated boots and clothing in those days. I had learned that when the windmill outside our kitchen door indicated a southerly flow of wind in winter, a thaw was underway. Halleluiah. So I had developed the habit of keeping an eye on the windmill.
Today, society likes to think that the weathervanes on the old barns were there for decoration. Don’t believe it. Farmers did not always have the National Weather Service to keep them confused. They at least always knew which way the wind was blowing.
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