Fall unfolds with a comforting ease and a pace I wish for every September. The aspens scroll from summer’s life-giving greens to autumn's soulful yellows . With the drawing down of late summer and the rise of cooler days, many citizens in the Elk River Valley and Routt County begin to speculate about the coming winter season, and we do so by sizing up weather-predicting folklore traditions.
I and other local residents may stand next to skunk cabbage to check its height. The height of the skunk will be the height of the winter’s snows. The skunk cabbage is easily 6 ½ feet high this year. We may look for beaver damns. The higher number of beaver damns, the harder the winter ahead and this year there are many. We may refer to the Farmer’s Almanac, or check out how deep the chipmunks bury their nuts, or in my case, hunt down woollybear caterpillars.
Woollybears are a very hairy caterpillar appearing on roadways in mid-September and early October. They are found wandering across byways in search of a rock or log in which to spend the winter in their larval state, sustaining themselves in freezing temperatures by producing their own antifreeze. In the spring, they transform into Tiger Moths, a strikingly artistic black and white insect.
I talk to friends and family every year about the woollybears, how I look for them on the road down by the canyon, half-way to town. This year they’ve been hard to find. There seem to be fewer and I wonder why. In my research, the banded woollybear I search for is less common than the more common species, yellow woollybear and saltmarsh woollybear caterpillars found in Colorado. Maybe that's why it's been harder to find them; or I wonder, perhaps the increase in commuter traffic increases the likelihood they'll be crushed: an untimely end to their purposeful journey.
Folklore suggests that the wider the orange band on the black woolly caterpillar, the harsher the winter ahead. There is however, no scientific evidence to indicate there’s any correlation between the two. The band width is actually a record of when the caterpillar was born: the wider the band, the earlier the spring and shorter the winter; the narrower the band, the later the spring and the longer the winter. With that, my search is actually misguided and futile: a wide band width means a shorter previous winter. So, the band has nothing to do with the winter ahead. But, I hunt woolly caterpillars anyway, as autumn's brilliance slips into the arms of winter’s embrace. I want to imagine a natural world magical enough to believe in. I want to imagine a natural world filled with a wisdom from which I can hear if I slow down enough to listen.