I think I'm ready to write about something other than politics today. It's Saturday, and I'm still basking in the euphoria of Obama's victory on Tuesday. Let's let things rest for a couple of days.
This actually happened last weekend when the weather was nicer than it is today, and DH was out mowing the lawn and I was indoors on the computer:
The phone rang as I sat at the computer, feverishly looking at every blog and polling website trying to piece together a feeling of certainty about the upcoming election.
"Hello?" I said impatiently.
It was DH, calling on his cell phone from the back yard. He said, "Come look at this caterpillar."
Most people would have said "What? Don't bother me about some stupid caterpillar when I'm busy trying to figure out who's going to win the election!" (Well, that's what you might expect ME to say, anyway, based on my usual reaction to interruptions from DH during a blogging session).
Instead, I said, "OK!" and hung up the phone, running down the stairs.
This is because I had suddenly become nine years old. When I was that age, we had just moved to upstate New York to a more rural area, and I had become fascinated with all of the wildlife in the area, which consisted of many more types of birds than I was familiar with, strange creatures in the back yard (groundhogs), and yes, caterpillars.
There was not a caterpillar that didn't fascinate me. I'd find them on bushes, trees, and shrubs, let them crawl onto my fingers, and I'd bring them home, along with a good supply of leaves, and put them in a jar with airholes in the cover. I'd watch as they spun their cocoons, and then wait while a miracle took place inside their little homespun houses. Then one day, a butterfly (or moth in some cases) would emerge, and I'd bring the open jar outside and let it go free to start the cycle all over again.
Naturally I had a Peterson Guide to Insects, similar to my bird guidebook, to identify the creatures I was finding.
We had a lot of milkweed in our back yard so I was always looking for the Monarch Butterfly larva, which is a colorful striped caterpillar that loves to chow down on milkweed. I did find one once. Another time I found two caterpillars that turned out to be Mourning Cloak Butterflies once they hatched.
Hearing the words, "Come look at this caterpillar" made me immediately start wondering what kind of caterpillar it was. The first one that came to mind was the Wooly Bear, since they are relatively common in this area.
Sure enough, when I found DH, halted in mid-mow so as not to cut up the caterpillar, there crawling obliviously in front of the mower was a nice Wooly Bear with the distinctive three colored bands - black at either end and a rusty brown in the middle.
I put my finger in front of him and he obligingly crawled onto it. Then I picked him up and took him over to the garden at the side of the yard, and tried to get him off my finger. He finally fell into the weeds and grass (luckily we don't weed our garden much!) and rolled tightly into a little ball of fuzz, as Wooly Bears are wont to do when feeling nervous.
Wooly Bears are known for supposedly predicting the severity of the upcoming winter weather. This one had a fairly even distribution of color, with the middle brown band taking up about a third of his length. This probably means a relatively average winter as I found pictures of Wooly Bears with much wider brown bands.
According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, a long-term study was done at Bear Mountain, New York, to determine if there is any truth in this old wive's tale, and apparently there is a certain amount of accuracy to it, although it certainly wasn't very scientific:
"Between 1948 and 1956, Dr. Curran's average brown-segment counts ranged from 5.3 to 5.6 out of the 13-segment total, meaning that the brown band took up more than a third of the woolly bear's body. As those relatively high numbers suggested, the corresponding winters were milder than average. But Curran was under no scientific illusion: He knew that his data samples were small. Although the experiments popularized and, to some people, legitimized folklore, they were simply an excuse for having fun. Curran, his wife, and their group of friends, who called themselves The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, escaped New York each fall for the glorious foliage and the meals at the posh Bear Mountain Inn."
In 1988, the annual Wooly Bear collection was resurrected at Bear Mountain, conducted by the nature museum at Bear Mountain State Park. According to the Almanac,
"This fall, museum director Jack Focht will gather a dozen or so caterpillars, as he has done since 1988, and spread them out on the kitchen table of his "folklore consultant," Clarence Conkling. The two men will count the brown segments, average them, and declare another forecast from Woolly Bear Mountain. 'We're about 80 percent accurate,' he says."
Eighty percent? Pretty good for an old wive's tale!
(Actually, according to Mike Peters at the University of Massachusetts, it is more likely that the width of the bands is reflective of the previous season's weather rather than the upcoming winter's severity. But that's no fun.)
The Almanac is apparently a bit out of date, because the Times Record-Herald up in New York State says that Mr. Focht retired in the 90s and the counts stopped for awhile.
However, the Hudson Highlands Nature Preserve has apparently continued the tradition of collecting the caterpillars as a children's event. The prediction for this winter? Mild!
We'll take it!
(Photo courtesy of Cold Spring School.)