One of the earliest stories I ever sold to a magazine was a piece about weather folklore. In fact, the article centered on the belief that wooly worms could forecast the severity of winter. Looking back, I now realize the editor would have been justified to reject my submission on principle because it was submitted by an unpublished novice.
Then there was the odd subject matter.
But I wrote with such authority that he was intrigued and called to question me about source material. I explained that all the information came from my Granny, an 80-year-old, one-quarter Cherokee Appalachian woman who believed in signs, charms, curses, spirits and root medicine.
She was a devout church-goer who saw no contradiction in balancing her religion and the existence of an unseen supernatural realm. These beliefs fit together hand-and-glove, according to Granny’s view of the world.
“Jesus cast out demons and was comforted by angels. He healed folks with mud and spit and a touch. He calmed the waters. Read your Bible if you don’t believe me.”
That she could speak in great detail about wooly worm colors and the thickness of the hairy bands encircling their bodies – and relate these observations to predictions about the severity of winter – did not surprise me. I’d been indoctrinated years ago.
For generations, my family had planted by the moon signs. They didn't use the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Rather they recalled sayings handed down through the generations such as, "Don't plant root crops in the full moon..." or "Gardens planted on Good Friday will thrive."
My grandmother was a fount of advice on the meaning of signs. Before meteorology became a science, Appalachians depended on signs of nature for weather predictions. Life depended on the cycle of seasons and being able to anticipate atmospheric changes for good or ill.
Hog-killing time was an example. Much preparation went into the process of killing and butchering the hogs on which Appalachian families depended for their winter meat.
My childhood recollection was of the excitement generated when Granny augured the signs to declare an impending "cold spell" and declared that the hogs could be killed, plunged in boiling vats of water, scraped and butchered to make smoked hams, bacon, canned sausage and chops without risk of spoilage.
She also "put up" her kraut according to the signs and performed a myriad of important tasks related to the health and welfare of her large (14 children) brood. This included dosing with homemade tonics in the spring and fall and medical treatment using unconventional wisdom and resources (kerosene, mare’s milk, black cat hair, spider webs, castor oil, asafoetida and sulfur water, to name a few).
Granny was in charge of the huge family garden. This meant no seed or root went into the soil until the most auspicious signs were evident. Underground crops were planted during the dark of the moon; aboveground crops by the light of the moon. She always had more fruits and vegetables than we could eat, can, freeze or give away.
I revealed all this to the magazine editor, almost certain a rejection letter would follow. Instead, he bought my article on the condition that I collect more folklore from Granny and people of her age and background.
My first sale and the possibility of follow-up articles sent me into a whirlwind of folklore research, talking to Granny and her peers in the rural community where my extended family had lived since the early 1900s.
I learned that chattering squirrels signal a less severe winter (when they sense a harsh winter, they’re too busy collecting acorns and nuts to chatter); that beavers add more wood to the north side of their lodges when a frigid winter looms; that heavy fur on the bottom of rabbit feet was a sign of heavy snow on the way; that when spring flowers have a second bloom, it’s going to be a bad winter.
Best of all I learned about persimmon seeds. The blackish seeds of this native tree have images that resemble forks, spoons, and knives. A preponderance of forks on the seeds mean a temperate winter; spoons mean a lot of snow to be shoveled; and knives foretell frigid temperatures and cutting winds.
My second submission to the magazine also dealt with the height of hornet nests, the thickness of walnut shells, fogs in August, even old sayings such as “the chill is on near and far in all the months that have an ‘R’.“ In my opinion, it was a masterpiece.
I mailed off the article in neat, double-spaced type, addressing it to the editor who asked for more about weather folklore. I waited weeks. Those weeks turned into months. Then a year went by without a response. To describe me as disappointed was an understatement. So I called the editor’s long-distance number.
“He no longer works here,” said the receptionist. “All the pending submissions were rejected by the new editor because the magazine is moving in a new editorial direction. Did you not get your rejection letter?”
Lesson learned? There are no natural signs by which a writer can predict whether his work will be published. Not even Granny could do it.