I was raking leaves today and was being bombarded by falling acorns. The ground is covered with them and the squirrels and chipmunks are going a bit crazy.
I have read that acorn production runs in cycles of two to five years. In the lore of weather predictions and nature signs about the seasons, a lot of acorns are said to be a sign of a bad winter to come.
“Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry will cause snow to gather in a hurry.”
Acorns and other fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Hard mast is the name for acorns, walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, and hard seeds. (Buds are soft mast.) A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number, In Paradelle, 2022 autumn is a mast year.
There have been several thunderstorms the past week and thunder means lightning. I know lightning is caused by imbalances between storm clouds and the ground, or within the clouds themselves, but part of me is still the child who was fascinated and frightened by it.
My house was hit by lightning when I was 10 years old. It hit our chimney and blew the bricks apart and started a small fire in our attic. The fire department came and doused the fire which was more of glowing wood and insulation than flames but the event had a big impact on me.
I wanted to learn more about these electrical discharges. There are many types of lighting: ball and bead, forked and sheet, superbolts and rocket lightning, crown flashes and anvil crawlers, staccato lightning, ribbon lightning, and more. My parents claimed that when I was a baby ball lightning came through a window of our house, rolled across the room, and exited on the opposite side of the house. I still doubt that but it did send me to books to see if such a thing was even possible.
Humans throughout history have been fascinated and frightened by lightning. It figures in theology and mythology. Those interpretations happened long before science could answer some of the questions about thunder and lightning or even before the two were known to be parts of the same thing.
Even in the era of Sir Isaac Newton (late 1600s and early 1700s) the science of electricity only covered a static charge and it was known as “electric magic.”
I remember reading in some novel about St. Elmo’s Fire which is named after St. Erasmus of Formia (also known as St. Elmo), the patron saint of sailors. It’s not lightning but this weird phenomenon can warn of an imminent lightning strike. This luminous plasma is created by a corona discharge from a rod-like object such as a mast (though it can also be a spire, chimney, or even an animal horn) in an atmospheric electric field. It is interesting that this very strange event was regarded by sailors with awe and sometimes considered to be a good omen.
If you asked most people who is associated with thunder and lightning in religion or mythology, I suspect that Thor would be the top answer. But lightning also appears in the Abrahamic religions, Hindu, Shinto and traditional religions of African tribes.
Lei Gong is the god of thunder in Chinese folklore, and his wife, Dianmu, was the goddess of lightning.
In Native American stories, Thunderbird controlled the upper world and flapped his wings to create thunder to protect humans from the underworld. Lightning shot out of his eyes at the underworld’s monsters.
“If lightning is the anger of the gods, then the gods are concerned mostly about trees.” ― Lao Tzu
As science came into being – and as I got older – we al learned that thunder wasn’t “God bowling” (as I heard in childhood) and lightning was not caused by Thor’s hammer. Colliding particles of liquid – rain, ice or snow – inside storm clouds increase the imbalance between storm clouds and the ground, and often negatively charge the lower reaches of those clouds. Ceratin objects on the ground – especially trees, building steeples (and chimneys!), but also the Earth itself, become positively charged. Nature wants to keep a balance and so a current (lightning) passes between the two charges.
“Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely anywhere on earth. A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.” ― Galway Kinnell
It seems so silly now that church bells forged before science informed us about lightning might have the inscription “Fulgura Frango” (I break up lightning flashes) because it was believed that ringing church bells could ward off lightning strikes. One theory was that ringing bells would change the air’s flow, breaking the lightning’s path toward church towers.
Every child learns at some point about the wise Benjamin Franklin and his foolishly dangerous kite and key experiments from the mid-1700s led him to conclude that lightning was electricity. He soon invented the lightning rod, which actually did save some lives and buildings.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain
Acorns have been bombing my home’s roof and deck and pinging the roof of the metal shed in the backyard heavily since late summer. The quantity of acorns seems to vary from year to year. This year might be what is known as a “mast year.”
I had to look up what a mast year means. The fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Things like walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, hard seeds, and acorns are called hard masts, and berries and fruits, and buds are soft mast. A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number,
Since my first association with the word “mast” is with a sailing ship, I had to check the etymology of this botanical usage. It comes from Middle English and earlier Old English mete similar to mæst in Old High German where it meant food. If you think of an acorn as food (many animals and some humans do) then inside that shell is the meat.
Can we predict these cycles of acorn plenty? Do we know why they occur? There are theories but it is still mostly a mystery.
These mast years seem to occur in irregular cycles of two to five years. An abundance of acorns is often said to be a nature sign of a bad winter. The folk belief is that squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other animals somehow know that they need to stock up for a bad winter and that nature somehow knows to increase the supply chain of acorns. But there’s no real science behind that folk wisdom and weather lore. that they need to stock up. The Farmers’ Almanac – which has lots of folklore around weather – seems to indicate that if acorn numbers mean a bad winter then almost every year is a bad winter.
But I continue and observe and write about signs of the seasons in nature and keep a nature calendar.
Squirrels, mice, chipmunks and deer feed on the acorns in my neighborhood. When the trees produce smaller crops for a few consecutive years, they are in effect keeping the populations of these animals in check. But during a mast year, the trees produce more food than the animals can possibly eat.
This abundance causes a boom in the populations of smaller mammals. It also guarantees that some acorns will survive and grow into new trees. Producing nuts slightly stunts the tree’s growth, but as it happens in cycles the tree gets a chance for growth in the non-mast years. Living things generally live to reproduce.
Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather and so in Paradelle, they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. I read that one chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. But those cute little Disneyesque critters don’t just eat acorns. Along with seeds and fungi, they will eat grain, fruit, nuts, insects, and worms. I was surprised to find that though they don’t hunt for bird eggs and even nestling birds and baby mice, they will eat them when they find them. They also love to dig in my outdoor potted plants, so cute as Chip and dale might be, they are also pests around here.
In 2020, the chipmunk population locally was insanely large. This year I barely saw any – until the acorns started to fall in late August and now they are all over my backyard and deck. Where were they all spring and summer?
In reading the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers and some other research as a follow-up. I learned a lot about trees. For example, most people probably believe that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water, and nutrients. That isn’t true. In fact, in most settings, they communicate and cooperate.
With acorns, temperature and moisture are probably factors in these cycles, and now it is theorized that oaks might be sending chemical signals to coordinate their production. In my part of the country (Northeast) last winter and spring were generally mild winter and so white and red oak trees are able to produce more of them when they start creating seeds in the spring. A harsh winter or cold spring or freeze can mean little acorn production, or sometimes none at all.
There are still mysteries in all this. How trees communicate with each other is still being explored. We can’t predict when any one species will have a mast year.
but we do better understand what causes it. The weather certainly has a part to play. To produce a healthy crop, the trees need the right combination of temperature and rainfall in the spring.
Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events in relation to the weather. This is the scientific version of weather lore and the studies continue.
SIDEBAR: Can humans safely eat acorns? Yes, they can be used in a variety of ways. They can be eaten whole, ground up into acorn meal or flour, or made into mush to have their oil extracted. Once you’ve safely leached the tannins from your raw acorns, you can roast them for 15 to 20 minutes and sprinkle them with salt for a snack. I haven’t tried eating yet, but maybe this is a good year for it.
Whatever the weather is like the first twelve days of January is supposed to indicate what the weather will be like for the next 12 solar months. Each day equals one month in succession. So, January 6 would predict June’s weather. This is one weather lore predictor that is quite extreme and wholly unscientific – but perhaps fun.
Of course, January would have been the time to pay attention, so I guess I should repost this in January 2022, but you can find your local weather history online since I doubt that anyone recalls what the weather was like in January. You can find information at sites like weather.com
For New Jersey, I went to njweather.org for a recap on this past January’s weather just to see if there was any correlation to this month. I also looked at accuweather.com which told me that on January 6 it was a high of 43 and a low of 32 degrees. That is a normal range for a Jersey January and June was an average Jersey June – which means days in the 70s, 80s and the 90s. It’s a mixed month.
I don’t really think of weather in collective terms like months or even the year. I am more likely to remark about or remember a week. “It was a rainy week.”
Though I occasionally write here about weather lore, I don’t take it very seriously. It is fun and sometimes it happens to match the actual weather, which is why these kinds of beliefs linger on.
A snowy February is supposed to bring a good spring and a mild month means stormy weather for the new season. Compare that to prognosticating groundhogs and other critters.
In any season, a ring around the Moon is supposed to mean precipitation is coming.
If the Moon shows a silver shield, be not afraid to reap your field. I’m not sure what a silver shield on the Moon means – and I have no fields to harvest – so that one I can ignore.
I feel bad for all the confused and trapped groundhogs today. We humans can be so foolish sometimes. Perhaps, some creatures in the wild did venture out today to see what was happening in the world. Maybe some of them saw the sun, a shadow, or a pile of snow. I’m thinking that either way they went back in their den because they know it’s not spring. That’s for sure. Spring is 46 days away in my hemisphere no matter what happened to critters today.
Here’s an optimistic take on today: this is a cross-quarter day – Imbolc – which marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. We’re halfway to spring. Winter is half over.
I planted snowdrops a few years ago and I’m sure they are still there – under about two feet of snow, which is a kind of blanket. They are being patient and waiting for the sun ( as Jim Morrison once wrote and sang).
I also lit a candle today because it’s Candlemas. The candle is unconsecrated but that’s okay. According to weather lore, the snow today means some spring-like days are ahead in the next six weeks.
Go back to your dens. Wear a mask (or two) if you go out. Better days are coming.
It is weather folklore that says that autumn will arrive 90 days after the katydids start to sing. Based on my Paradelle observations, that made this past Tuesday (November 17) the arrival of autumn. That prediction is way off. Of course, maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention to the first katydid song. Maybe the insects in my neighborhood got a late start. Maybe weather lore is just weather lore.
It was looking autumnal last month and this week it has been feeling wintry. I needed to take in the garden hoses and liquids from the garage. I did my last lawn mowing and drained the mower’s gas. It was below freezing this morning. But I haven’t given in to getting the snowblower ready. I’m not jinxing November.
I posted earlier about what the scientists at NOAA think will be coming this winter but I honestly don’t know that I trust scientists or nature for long-term weather predictions. Still, I find myself looking for those predictions and writing about them as a kind of seasonal ritual. I’m not alone. My past weather posts always get an uptick in hits when the seasons are changing from people wondering.
Before we get to predicting the weather ahead, we need to decide how we are going to organize the year. You can use the astronomical calendar of equinoxes and solstices to mark changes in seasons. The meteorological calendar breaks the seasons down into groupings of three months based on the annual temperature cycle as well as our calendar. Of course, your local conditions probably don’t really match either method’s breakdown of the year.
And then there is phenology, which is my favorite. This is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events in your area. That means the start of a season won’t follow either calendar. I like it because it requires you to observe nature– something people did quite seriously once upon a time and few people do today. This means more than just saying “Oh look, the trees are changing colors” or “The crocuses look nice this year.” When did the trees start changing? Which species was first and when did it happen last year?” I’ve been journaling my garden and plants around me for a lot of years and that first crocus bloom has become something I look forward to seeing and recording each spring. And it changes.
If you want to be a bit more of a “citizen scientist” you can join thousands of others in gathering environmental and climate change information from across the country in a program called Project BudBurst. But I do recommend some careful observation of your little corner of the world.
The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting for Thanksgiving chilly conditions for most zones with even some light snow forecast for the Rockies/Plains and points east and showery conditions for Texas, and most of Zone 5. (Check zones here)
I’m in Zone 1 on their map and that covers my New Jersey all the way up to Maine. Very different weather in there. For the 24th-27th (Thanksgiving time) it is supposed to be unsettled, with light snow/flurries but clearing in time for Thanksgiving.
Did you know that The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a different publication? That is the one my mom used to buy and I read as a kid, and I still buy a copy every year. It has a look and a style that has remained pretty much the same since 1792. It’s full of all kinds of crazy stuff.
As they say themselves, it has “fun facts, predictions, and feature items that have made it a cultural icon: traditionally 80 percent–accurate weather forecasts; notable astronomical events and time-honored astrological dates; horticultural, culinary, fashion, and other trends; historical hallmarks; best fishing days; time- and money-saving garden advice; recipes for refreshment; facts on folklore, farmers, home remedies, and husbandry; amusements and contests, plus too much more to mention.”
This almanac has me in a smaller Atlantic Corridor region which I’m thinking makes predictions more accurate? Both almanacs have websites that are free to use. I do like getting The Old Farmer’s Almanac free email newsletter with planting time suggestions and garden stuff and looking at this new-fangled World Wide Web thing at www.almanac.com. But I think for now I’ll just pour myself a neat one and settle down on the couch and read off some pages made from dead trees like God intended.