Many of us, at least in North America, have heard the weather lore of seeing how fuzzy the coat of a “woolly bear” caterpillar is to determine how severe the upcoming winter would be. Fuzzier coat, worse winter.
When I was with my grandmother as a kid, and the wind blew hard enough to turn up the paler, underside of the leaves, she always said a storm was coming. I don’t know how scientifically true that observation is, but to this day, when strong winds turn the leaves bottoms up, I check the sky.
Another bit of nature lore I’ve discovered on my own is the return of the turkey vultures to our area. Every year, during the last week of February or the first week of March, the turkey vultures fly in from South America, a sure sign of spring on the way. This year, they returned, and April turned out to be the fourth coldest on record. Although it still felt like winter, it was spring by the calendar. I wonder if it confused the vultures.
If you have a story set in nature, research the area’s weather lore for writing inspiration. It can enhance a character who lives close to nature. Or it may provide a spark for speculative fiction. For example, if I set a story in my home county, I could have my main character notice that the turkey vultures don’t return on time or not at all. It signals some devastating natural disaster.
A great source of these kinds sayings from Southern Appalachia are the Foxfire books. Begun in 1966, Foxfire is a magazine still written by high school students on the heritage of Southern Appalachia. To learn more, visit their website.
In the first book compiled from these magazines is a chapter on “Weather Signs”. Some of the advice it gives for forecasting the weather are:
The winter will be harsh if:
“squirrels begin gathering nut early (middle or late September)
“beaver lodges have more logs.”
“hoot owls call late in the fall”
“miller moths hit the screen trying to get it”
Rain comes when:
“if the horns of the moon point down.”
“if leaves show their backs.”
“if birds fly low.”
Any of these old sayings could spark a story. What if you invent a world where all these sayings are true? People are trained to be weather lore forecasters. The most gifted ones hold powerful positions in government. Or what if just one of the sayings is true? What if “woolly bear” worms really could forecast the weather? Farmers would raise enormous colonies of the worms to sell. Some species would be better than others at predicting weather. Thieves might steal the best kind to sell to businesses that depend on the weather.
Another favorite nature experience is also one of the easiest for me to get to. When the river we live next to goes down, I wade across with my kids to an island situated between the river and a creek. My kids fish, look for crawdads, build dams, and generally mess around. I take a beach chair, enjoy the breeze, the quiet, and write. It’s vacation just a few feet from home.
Some of my favorite experiences in nature occurred on clear nights with a full moon. If you haven’t been out on a night like that, with no artificial light nearby, I highly recommend finding an opportunity to do so. Artificial lights dampen or kill the wonder of a full moon night.
Since we live in the county, I’ve had chances to venture out in these nights bathed in moonlight. What catches my attention first are the shadows. The moonlight is so strong it casts shadows. The second thing I notice is how far I can see. On typical nights, the woods that line the edge of our property are just a wall of darkness. Under the full moon, I can pick out details. And then I become fascinated with the color. Silver is the best way to describe it. It illuminates but very differently from sunlight, so I can see but not quite.
“Not quite” sums up a full moon night. I can see better than a normal night, but not quite like in the daytime. My yard is recognizably familiar but not quite the same in the silver light.
I had the wonderful blessing to see the ocean under a full moon. As well as casting our shadows across the sand, the moonlight transformed the waves into rippling sheets of metal. They appeared solid as the hit the shore. That experience was so intense that God used it to lift me from a four-month depression.
So what stories are appropriate for this “not quite” setting? The strangeness of it should be a backdrop for a wonderfully positive scene or a horribly negative one. It can’t be the setting for run-of-the-mill action.
As much as I enjoy moonlight, I can see how it can be unsettling and even sinister to people because of it’s ability to be a weird imitation of day. One of my favorite picture books, The Magic Wood, begins with an illustration of a boy sitting under a full moon. He heads into the dark woods and mets a creature who at first is disturbing and then turns dreadful. For a positive approach, read Chapter 22 “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah” fromWatership Down by Richard Adams.
My favorite story for the month,Watership Down, gave me the idea for this prompt. The author had to describe nature from the point of view of rabbits. How would you write about nature from another animal’s viewpoint? How does water feel to a fish? An otter? How does a bird experience air currents?
Pick an animal and share what you think would be a unique challenge in writing from that viewpoint.
Shortly after I was married, I finally got around to reading Watershed Down. My dad had always been a big fan of it, and I remember seeing an animated movie based on it when I was a kid. I distinctly remember how mean the bad guys were. I’m not sure why it took me so long to try it myself, but once I did I was hooked. Few novels held my attention from beginning to end, but this one not only held it but refused to let it go. I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I had to take a break.
You wouldn’t think a book about rabbits in Great Britain trying to establish a new warren would be so engrossing, but it is. Ten bucks set out from Sandleford Warren when Fiver, who is a seer, convinces them that something horrible is going to happen to their warren. The bucks, led by Fiver’s brother Hazel, endure many hardships, including “elil”, the rabbit word for animals who attack rabbits. They also encounter a warren that is really just a place for people to fatten up rabbits.
The buck survive to found a warren on Watership Down and turn their attention to getting does. This problem leads them to confront General Woundwort, the tyrannical chief rabbit of a warren run like a military dictatorship. This warren is overcrowded with does who are willing to leave, but the General, greedy for power, won’t let them.
Hazel, his second-in-command Bigwig, and the other bucks hatch a plot to help the does escape, which ultimately leads to General Woundwart launching an invasion of Watershed Down.
I chose this book for my month on writing about nature because Richard Adams so wonderfully combines the rabbits’ natural instincts with his world-building. Mr. Adams has invented a mythology, complete with well-known tales, and a language for his rabbits. He gives most of the rabbits distinct personalities. Hazel is the sure and steady leader. Fiver is the high-strung seer. Bigwig is bluff, big-hearted, and the best fighter. Blackberry is the smart one with the most ingenious ideas.
But he also has them act like rabbits. The bucks need does. The overcrowding in the General’s warren is so bad that pregnant does reabsorb their kits. Rabbits only swim if they must and dislike getting wet.
The bulk of the story takes place in May and June, and Mr. Adams’s descriptions of the countryside are so vivid, I can almost smell the dirt and budding plants. One way he does this is by being very specific in his descriptions.
“Only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots.”
“A hundred yards away … ran the brook, no more then three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress, and blue brookline.”
When Bigwig is sent to help the does escape from the General’s warren, a storm is brewing, making all the rabbits nervous. It breaks just as Bigwig and the does make a break for it.
What stories have you read that use nature in a way you love?