Metro-East Living

From onions to woolly worms, weather predictions are tricky

It was January 1988 when I drove out to Wesley Fischer’s home in rural New Memphis to get the latest onion weather forecast.

You can have your jet streams, your color Doppler radar and your satellite composites. The folks around New Memphis put more stock in Wes’ onion back then.

At the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve, just like the 15 or so New Year’s Eves before that, the retired farmer took his butcher knife to a yellow onion the size of a softball.

“We don’t go out and celebrate,” Wes said at the time. “This is more important. A lot of people will be calling to find out what the onions said.”

That year, the onion called for a wet February; farmers would have trouble getting crops planted between April and May rains; and by August, it would be so dry you couldn’t spit, Wes told me.

Some people laughed at Wes’ forecasts, and Wes laughed right along with them. “But they take the time to copy my paper,” Wes said, taking a quarter sheet of lined yellow legal paper out of his wallet. On that scrap of paper was scribbled the month-by-month precipitation forecast for 1988.

“You have to keep it handy,” he said. “You never know when somebody will want to know.”

Wes was a little fuzzy on how he found out about the forecasting technique. It wasn’t passed down from his daddy’s daddy to his daddy to Wes. “I just heard about it years ago and I tried it. I think somebody might have started it as a joke way back ... but it worked.”

In case you want to try it for yourself next New Year’s Eve, here is how Wes explained his method.

He held up his thumb and forefinger about 1/8 of an inch apart. “You gotta have an onion big enough so you can get 12 slices about like that out of it.”

Wes bought his onion at the grocery store. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the onion is homegrown or picked in California. It still knows about the weather in Southern Illinois.

Next cut off the top of the onion. Then get a piece of paper (wallet size preferred) and mark down the 12 months.

The key is to cut slice No. 1 (January) at the stroke of midnight. Lay the slice on a dry cutting board. Do not use a painted cutting board. Cut each slice the same and lay them in order on the cutting board. (Try not to let your tears fall onto the board, or you’ll really louse things up. Let the slices sit for half an hour.

Now, lift up the first slice. If it’s dry underneath, write “dry” under January on the paper. If it’s wet, write “wet.” If it’s somewhere in between, write “some moisture.”

Do the same for each slice until you fill up the chart.

The next step may be the most important, Wes told me. “After you get it all written down, your kitchen stinks. Put the onion in a box and take it outside. Throw it away.”

Wes never ate the sacred onion. He just folded the paper and stuck it in his wallet so it would be handy whenever any of this friends asked him about the year’s onion preditions.

Wes was a little reluctant, but he finally let me put his chart in the paper.

“It it doesn’t work out to good, just tell them, ‘That darned fool doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’”

Here are a few other folksy weather predictors many people swear by. Not me, of course. However, my bunion never lies.

* Woolly worms. The narrower the brown band (and the more dominant the black bands) on the tiger moth caterpillar in the fall, the harsher the winter.

* Persimmon seeds. Cut open the seed of a locally-grown ripe persimmon. If the kernel is spoon-shaped, lots of heavy, wet snow will fall. Spoon equals shovel! If it is fork-shaped, expect powdery, light snow and a mild winter. If the kernel is knife-shaped, expect icy, cutting winds.

* If birds line up on a telephone wire, rain’s a’comin’.

* If a rooster crows at night, it will rain by morning.

* If hornets build their nests low to the ground, winter will be harsh.

Wes’ onions are looking better all the time.