Waiting for Sheila's Brush? Here's some of N.L.'s other weather lore
Many Newfoundlanders will be hoping that the snow headed our way this evening is Sheila's Brush — the last big storm of winter — which, according to legend, always falls shortly after St. Patrick's Day.
Sheila's Brush is one of the few survivors of an enormous body of weather lore that once existed in the province.
For people who lived off the land and the sea, advance knowledge of the weather could mean the difference not only between poverty and prosperity, but between life and death. Heavy rain could ruin a catch of fish set out to dry, a long winter could deplete food stores, and a storm could sink a ship with all hands.
So, before meteorologists, weather apps, and Environment Canada's seven-day forecast, our ancestors relied on rhymes, proverbs and folk wisdom passed down through the generations to predict the weather.
Here's a taste of that forgotten lore.
Historically, Newfoundland and Labrador's rural residents lived closely with animals, both wild and domestic, and they looked to the behaviour of their non-human neighbours for a hint of what weather might be on the horizon.
If the goats hid under the fish flakes, the bees kept to their hives, or the spiders abandoned their webs, it was a sure sign of rain. The creatures were seeking shelter from a coming downpour.
At sea, fish could signal changes in the weather, too. Schools of herring rushing to the beach presaged wind, while pebbles in the stomachs of freshly caught codfish portended a storm.
Overhead, even the flight pattern of the gulls told a story, as captured in this little ditty:
Seabirds keeping near the land
Tell a storm is near at hand,
But flying seabirds out of sight,
You may stay and fish all night.
The common housecat was perhaps the most versatile meteorologist of them all. Practically every feline behaviour, it seems, could be interpreted as a forecast.
Was the cat scratching at the wall? Strong winds were in the offing. Washing its face? A thaw was on the way. Sitting with its back to the fire? Expect a heavy snowfall. Even a sneeze was not just a sneeze but a potential rainfall warning.
WATCH: Can spiders really forecast the weather?
Taking the lay of the land
The natural environment provided its own clues to the coming weather.
You might have heard the saying "red sky at night, sailor's delight." This is just one of the poems linking crimson sunsets to fine weather and crimson dawns to foul. My personal favourite is:
Evening grey and morning red
Sends the traveller wet to bed,
But evening red and morning grey
Sends the traveller on his way.
The shape of the clouds, too, was telling:
Mackerel scales and mare's tails,
Make tall ships carry low sails.
Cirrocumulus clouds that are dappled or banded like the scales of a mackerel and cirrus uncinus clouds that curl at the ends like a horse's tail were thought to foreshadow gusty rain storms, the kind that would force a ship to lower its sails for fear of being capsized.
When the sun is drawing water,
Better bide home with wife and daughter.
The charming image of the sun drawing water refers to sun dogs, a type of solar halo that creates two bright spots on either side of the sun. When the sun is low on the ocean horizon, sun dogs can appear to arch right into the sea, as though the sun is thirsting for water.
Like mare's tails, sun dogs are a predictor of stormy weather — reason for a wise fisherman to stay home with his family rather than set to sea.
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Counting the days
Feb. 2 may be Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, but in Newfoundland and Labrador it was Candlemas, which was also considered an opportune time for weather predictions.
N.L.'s folklore is the reverse of Punxsutawney's, where a day sunny enough for the groundhog to see his shadow foretells six more weeks of winter. Here, fine weather signals that winter is almost at an end:
If Candlemas Day be bright and fine,
The worst of the winter is left behind.
If Candlemas Day be rough and grum,
The worst of the winter is yet to come.
Feb. 2, though, wasn't the only significant date for weather. Saints' days throughout the year were thought to forecast the weeks to follow, with a portentous day falling practically every month during the fishing and growing seasons.
You might want to mark these lesser-known holidays on your calendar:
If St. Vitus Day [June 15] is rainy weather,
It will rain for thirty days together.
St. Swithin's Day [July 15] if we have rain,
Forty days it will remain.
If St. Bartlemy Day [Aug. 24] be fair and clear,
Hopes for a prosperous autumn that year.
If St. Matthew's Day [Sept. 21] is bright and clear,
It means good weather for the coming year.
WATCH: Four weather lore said to predict the winter season ahead
The science behind the sayings
It might have been wishful thinking to believe that the conditions on certain dates would reflect the weather for weeks to follow, but some of the other proverbs have been backed up by science.
After all, science is a system of observation, and what is weather lore based on if not centuries of informal observation?
Take the example of animals sheltering before a storm. Many animals are in fact able to sense the drop in atmospheric pressure that precedes rainy, snowy or windy weather.
Meanwhile, mackerel scales, mare's tails, and sun dogs often appear at the leading edge of warm fronts, which tend to bring storms along with them.
As for Sheila's Brush, well, you don't need to be psychic to know that March in Newfoundland and Labrador always has a few snowstorms in store. The only mystery is whether Sheila's will be the last.
This article, written by Ainsley Hawthorn, was originally published for CBC News.
Thumbnail credit: Rick Bohn/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via CBC News