Is the hair thick on the cow’s neck? Are the worms burrowing deeper? Are the birds flocking south sooner? Is winter galloping in on icy hoofs?
All I know is that when I left Kalispell early Friday morning on my trip home from the balmy shores of Puget Sound, the sky was overcast and the breeze pleasant. I was barely out of the city when my phone rang. I pulled off the highway.
Karen: “It’s snowing heavy in Great Falls.”
Me: “This is the middle of September. It can’t be snowing.”
Karen: “Well, it is.”
I eased back onto the road. As I entered the city limits of Columbia Falls, my phone rang again. I pulled onto a side street to answer.
John: “It’s snowing in Havre.”
Me: “This conversation sounds familiar.”
John: “And in Chinook and Harlem and Dodson and Malta.”
By the time I reached Essex the snow was coming down at a good clip, roads were slushy, the foothills were wearing a light blanket of white, and the high mountains looked like they were socked in for the winter. The east-er I drove, the harder it fell. My first inclination was to sink into a morass of morose. But my face betrayed me with a grin. It was so incredibly beautiful, my first sight of winter wonderland this year. I tried to shut down the other part of my brain, the part that wanted to remind me of what comes next. You know, snow tires, snow shovels, winter coats, studded grips for my boots, insulated mitts, sky-high heat bills, my back door drifted shut, warming up the car for 10 minutes to drive four blocks to the post office, and weeks, nay months, of cabin fever.
This year, it was back in July as a matter of fact, for the very first time, I made a prediction. I do not make predictions because if I don’t make them, I can’t be wrong. But this year I took a chance. I predicted another hard winter. Out loud. To several different people. I randomly scattered my prediction around like mosquito bites. With me, it is a kind of superstition in reverse. If I say it, it will not happen.
So as soon as I got home, after driving in snow past Shelby, I checked the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the one true forecaster of winter. It predicts a “Numbingly Cold Winter.” From The Weather Space I read, “A temporary ice age is coming for the western United States. Record cold temperatures will hit Montana farmlands.” Hey, that’s us.
The Farmer’s Almanac has compiled a lively list of harbingers of winter. These signs are fun to read. They include the usual things, like extra thick sheep wool, horse hair, raccoon fur and corn husks. (Corn husks?) Early migration of birds, geese, ducks, butterflies. Early arrival of fogs, owls, crickets. The march of the insects. Mice and spiders invading the house in great numbers. (Are you listening, Stephen King?)
But my favorite sign of winter from the Almanac’s list is “pigs gathering sticks..” I kid you not. Pigs gathering sticks. We already know that a straw house crumbles in a heap when the wolf of winter huffs and puffs. But as I remember the story, only the brick house prevails. And whoever heard of a brick pig-house? But why would pigs gather sticks? Tell me truly, have you ever seen pigs gathering sticks? Sober, I mean. I’ve never seen one pig picking up sticks. And if you see any, please tell me, and I will escape south with the birds post haste, before winter ices us in for good.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)