Woolly Bear Caterpillar. Photo by Bill Minus.

A few weeks ago, I saw a woolly bear caterpillar–the first one I’ve ever seen in Maryland. Most people would not have seen it or taken a second look. For me, watching that black fluffy inch-long feller slowly make his way cross a parking lot was like seeing an old friend.

I moved here from the mountains of western North Carolina where woolly bears are often seen. So who cares? Probably no one around here, but to many mountain people, even today, every woolly worm (that’s what we call them in North Carolina) sighting would surely come up in conversation around the supper table, or wherever a group of men gathered to discuss the events of the day. According to mountain folklore, winter weather can be predicted by the color of the woolly worm.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar. Source: Wikipedia.

The woolly worm often has black and brown stripes. You see, the belief is that the more black on a woolly worm’s body, the more severe cold and snow is likely to follow that winter. The one I saw, and documented with a photo, was all black. Long about this month and for the next couple of months, when snowflakes fly, I hope I’m not saying, with the help of a woolly worm, “I told you so.”

Seeing that woolly worm got me to thinking about other signals of a cold winter. Have you noticed how fat the squirrels are this year? Their evolutionary process is telling them a cold winter is coming–“so eat more.” It’s either that or my bird feeder is an easy target.

Eastern Gray Squirrel. Photo by Bill Minus.

According to the high mountain folks, I’m told another sign of a cold winter is the acorn crop. A large acorn crop cannot only indicate a colder winter, but the birth rate of bears, deer and many other mammals. In years when acorns, berries and squawroot are plentiful, the native black bear and deer are more likely to have multiple births. Mother Nature has a way of coordinating the number of cubs and fawns born with the availability of food. However, mountain deer have to work harder for their food with the few number of farms and challenging terrain.

Then there’s the belief that the number of mornings in September when the clouds settle in the mountain valleys will be equal to the snow days in the coming winter.

Seeing a woolly worm brought back another childhood memory. There may be doodlebugs, known as antlions around here, but I have not seen any. In fact, I have seen few in my life. Not something I will go to my grave regretting, but they offered the occasional moment’s entertainment as a child. They are interesting little creatures. About the size of a grain of rice, but in an enlarged photo they look prehistoric and downright scary.

Squawroot, also known as cancer-root or bear corn. Source: Wikipedia.

There was an old shed in Ned and Ethel’s backyard between the rusty barbed wire fence row, the chinaberry tree and Ned’s garden. It had a dirt floor that had not seen a drop of rain for years–perfect conditions for doodlebug homes. They form what looks like a small funnel-shaped hole, an inch wide and less than an inch deep, in dry sand or dust-dry dirt. Their home is also a trap. Under the sand at the bottom of their hole, they lay in wait for an ant or other small insects to wander by. If their victim slides down the slope of the trap they are quickly captured, and dragged under the soil. If the victim only came close, with lighting speed the doodlebug would grab his unsuspecting lunch. The really strange thing is, in seconds, they can crush their prey, devour it’s bodily fluids and fling it’s carcass out of the hole. I did not know any of this as a child.

Clouds in the valley. Photo by Drue Marshell.

Whenever a doodlebug home was sighted, it was required by some unwritten law, to stop what you were doing and perform the following: you first had to find a pine needle or small twig; then, on your knees, looking closely into the home, you would gently poke around while saying– “Doodlebug, Doodlebug, your house is on fire! Come out, Mr. Doodlebug, come out.” This would be said multiple times or until something more interesting to do came along. I am not sure any of us knew what a doodlebug looked like, but every so often a small bug would emerge, and you got to claim a “doodlebug sighting.”

Other superstitions centered around warding off bad luck. My Aunt Mildred was a firm believer in never looking at a full moon through the branches of a tree. When passing the salt, never hand it to the person–put it on the table in reach of the person. If walking with a friend and you come to a tree, power pole or sign post, never walk on opposite sides–go around the obstacle on the same side.

Doollybug/ant-lion. Source: Wikipedia.

There are probably hundreds of others involving mirrors, ladders, graveyards, cats, brooms and, as Andy Griffith would say, “whatall.” All said to bring on bad luck.

I don’t take any of these seriously, but they can bring on a smile and a questioning look–so why take a chance?