Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie , at sacred-texts.com
[The weather signs recorded in this article have been garnered almost altogether from a goodly number of years lived on ranches in the border country.]
"He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap." The thing is finely said and no doubt prefigures a truth; but the wisdom of Solomon was not weather wisdom, and had the wise king gone out from his palace with its porch of pillars and its terraces of "algum trees" to the shepherds "abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night," I imagine that he might have learned some new thing in the way of "discerning the face of the sky." For folk who herd and harvest have always been weather wise; and passing their lives in battle with nature, they seek to forecast the maneuvers of the elements with a zeal and curiosity little understood by the house-bound souls of towns and cities. Thus, the Mexican vaqueros and pastores who tend their pastures and herds on the border lands of Texas have come to possess a weather lore of signs as curious and various as may be found anywhere in the world perhaps.
Many of these signs are accepted, and, if not fully believed in, at least hoped in, by the American farmers and ranchmen. In all the vast, periodically desert territory stretching from Arizona to the Gulf of Mexico, no two native men of the soil ever meet without an exchange of the majority of these five questions:
"Well, how is the dry weather serving you?" "How has the rain been over in your section?" "When you reckon it's going to rain?" "How's the grass (or crops) over your way?" "It's getting awful dry, ain't it?"
Out in the arid lands this talk of the weather is not a mere pour passer le temps; it is charged with feeling and earnest solicitude. There, the justice of the old English proverb, "Change of weather is the discourse of fools," hardly applies, although everyone knows and quotes the saying: "Nobody but a fool or a newcomer will prophesy weather in Texas"--a saying vaunted before strangers but never remembered in their absence. Upon the weather depend the very necessities of life, and concerning it the talk of the dependents may well afford to be inconsistent.
Not many border Mexicans claim to read the atmosphere directly, but all ascribe to insects, birds, and beasts a prescience that they themselves for the most part disclaim. A sign almost universally believed to forecast rain is the climbing up of snails on weeds, bushes, posts, etc. The snails know, it is argued, when water is coming and, accordingly, seek a dry lodging. The fact that they may climb up months before it finally does rain in nowise dashes the faith in their weather divination.
A sign in which most Mexicans place yet more credence is the crawling out of rattlesnakes. Of course, the rattlers always lie up in very hot or very cold weather and come out on days of moderate temperature, in the spring, early summer, and fall-which are the rainy seasons, if any season of the Rio Grande regions can be called rainy. Nevertheless, on certain days, rattlesnakes do, for reasons unknown, come forth more abundantly than on other days of apparently identical weather attributes; and when they do, prophesies of rain are always correspondingly numerous.
The snakes need not be seen-only trailed. Experienced natives can tell by his trail in which direction a snake is traveling. If the trails are numerous and their direction is toward high ground, an old settler with an optimistic turn of mind might go out and buy a herd of cattle on the prospect for rain. I know of one pioneer who. claims to have learned this rain sign from the Indians. It may be entitled to some regard, but certainly the rattlesnake swims in water as naturally as does the moccasin. Dry land creature though he is, I have watched two of his kind swimming back and forth across a waterhole, apparently for no other reason than for fun. They were careful to keep their rattles pointed up high and dry, though. According to popular belief a rattlesnake never gets his rattles wet; hence his precaution against rain. Hence also the western custom of placing rattles in a fiddle as a charm against damp strings.
Another snake sign is this: if a dead snake tossed in the air falls on its back, with the white of its belly showing, rain is foretold; if, on the contrary, it falls on its belly, back up, dry weather will continue. Owing to the location of the serpentine center of gravity, however, the snake inevitably falls belly up! It is hardly necessary to say that rain does not inevitably follow. There are at least two variants of the same superstition: one is that if the dead snake is simply turned belly up, rain will be induced; the other, that if the snake is hung on a limb, it will rain. Consequently, while it is an unwritten law of the border that every man shall kill every rattlesnake found, it is a kind of implied duty that, the snake killed, he shall hang it up. To increase the effectiveness of the hanging, I have seen Mexicans make a snare out of horse tail and go to no end of trouble to noose the rattler and hang it up alive. By some border country folk, and by Westerners in general, extreme viciousness in rattlesnakes is interpreted as a sign of change in the weather, of rain. On the other hand, if the snakes are sluggish and dull to bite, a drouth is ominous. On the border, all snake signs seem to apply to rattlesnakes exclusively.
I remember how one rain sign was particularly impressed upon me. It was well along in the summer and there had been no rain all year. I was lamenting the drouth to an old pastor.
"No tiene miedo, maestro," said he. "Do not fear, master; it is beyond all doubt going to rain soon. The coyotes are howling every morning now after sunrise, and they are howling on the hills. Do not deceive yourself; cuando cantan los coyotes aoina, va hover sin falta." (When the coyotes sing in this manner, it is going to rain without fail.)
He went on to explain that. if the coyotes howled merely at night, after sunset and before sunrise, their howling was no seña; they must howl after the sun was up and before it went down. Moreover, unless the coyotes howled upon the hills, and not in the valleys and swales, their howling must be taken at a discount. And it did rain not long after the old pastor's cocksure asservation!
The time of day at which the animal folk express themselves has a great deal to do with what their expressions mean. As we shall see presently, the owl's hoot in the daytime is, like the coyote's yell in the daytime, the only hoot that's worth a hoot. So, contrarywise, the burro's bray is to be regarded as expressive of weather opinion only after dusk. If right after dusk, not late in the evening though, more than two burros set out a-braying and if they are answered by one or more burros off some distance, then, according to Mexican interpretation, it will rain before morning. Burros, it may be explained, are, excepting coyotes and happy hens, probably the most choral animals on earth; but, then, they have near precedent for being all liars.
Another pastor, who was originally from Mexico, was always divulging to me the signs and mysteries of the seasons. If the lambs frisked about in the morning, he declared that it would rain, though the gamboling of kids he held as of no import. However, he assured me that the nanny goats always knew what kind of season was going to follow their kidding. If they took kindly and quickly to their newborn kids, especially to the twins and triplets, a good season with plenty of pasturage might be expected. If, reversely, they were slow to own their offspring and had to be forced to let them suck, then one had better look out for drouth and barren range. If the goats inclined to be sleepy and spent much time lying down, Santos-for such was the pastor's name observed "a good sign," though goats always lie down a great deal on warm days. Beyond all, he claimed to have algo en su cuerpo (something in his body) that enabled him to read the coming events of the weather.
"It is going to rain about next Wednesday," he might say.
"Why, how do you know?" I would ask.
"Algo en mi cuerpo me dice." (Something in my body tells me so.)
It would not rain, and I got to teasing the fellow so about the algo en su cuerpo that he relinquished all claim to personal divination.
On the spur of the moment one of these Mexican weather prophets is likely to interpret almost anything as a sign of rain. He wants rain; he wants to think that it is going to rain; he wants to please whomsoever he is talking to and give him the pleasure. of thinking that it will rain; his easy nature makes him incline to put up the "purple parasol" of fancy between himself and the dry facts of the case; therefore, if there be no signs of rain, he is ready to invent some. To give an example: one night a much calf refused to suck.
"What is the matter with it?" I asked the ancient Mexican who was milking.
"Quié'n sabe?" he replied; "it is probably going to rain."
Sometimes, merely to hear what this patriarch would invent, I might ask: "Well, do Juan, when do you think it will rain?"
"Pues, quie'n sabe ?" he might reply, "but I notice that the hogs have kept under the shed all morning; they have not gone off rooting anywhere."
"Well, is that a sign of rain?"
"Pues, quie'n sabe?" And this with a chuckle, "It may be."
The weather prophet of the Mexican border is far from being without honor in his own country. Frequently some old man or woman will take a particular sign for his or hers and on it pin a reputation. One vaquero that I know claims as his seña-though I have heard others reckon with the same sign-the bellowing of bulls. The bulls, like the coyotes, must cantar (literally, sing!) upon the hills; if they cantar there, they are foretelling rain. If at the round-up steers and bulls fight and bellow a great deal, some vaquero is likely to remark that slickers will be needed before long.
Likewise, the running and kicking up of their heels by horses foot-free on the range is sometimes said to signify rain. The horses are, I suppose, excessively happy with the vision of grass which their prophetic souls possess; however, if some old cynic among them had the gift of Balaam's ass, he might observe that green grass in their bellies is more conducive to horses' rollicking than a prospect of grass merely psychic.
Men of the range generally, it seems to me, believe that cattle can sense a change in the weather sooner and more surely than all other animals. If toward winter an old cowman or one of his cowboys, "white" or Mexican, sees cattle lying down earlier than their usual bedding time, he will say that they are "resting up" for a norther that is sure to be on its way. If cattle bunch up and get their heads together, or if they low much, cold weather may be expected. There is no doubt that a great deal of credence may be placed in these particular cattle signs. As an indication of rain, the migration of cattle, as well as of quail, deer, and other animals, to the hills away from the waterings is frequently regarded with favor. It is a well known fact that such migrations always follow a rain; hence, it seems to be reasoned, if the migration takes place while it is still dry, the migrating things are simply seeing water ahead and taking time by the forelock. I have seen cattle scatter far back in the hills on a day when the clouds and atmosphere might indicate moisture, and yet return over dry trails. They know that the range is better away from the trodden ways; naturally, then, if the weather is fresh, they graze out farther. In winter, no matter how dry, all stock beat back as far as they can.
The ability of cattle, deer, and other animals to sense a change in the weather so much farther ahead than can man, is sometimes accounted for by men of the open by the theory that animals have a highly sensitized middle ear that feels weather warnings humanly imperceptible. Though the theory may have foundation, it is so far but a folk belief, comparable to that of explaining the extraordinarily keen hearing of deer by assigning them ears between their toes. I have heard pioneer hunters go so far as to assert that they had picked ear wax from that locality of deer's feet!
Few animals exist, perhaps, in the border country that do not afford at some time a weather sign. Once as a boy I asked a Mexican what the unusual number of bull-bats that we saw flying about in late evening was a sign of, and I remember well my astonishment at his reply: that they were not a sign of anything. In this atmosphere of signs and wonders, I used to sit under a mesquite tree by a certain water tank on hot days and watch the paisano, after he had drunk, run down the road a few paces, stop, look to the right, then to the left, then behind him, stand on one foot, then on the other, pant for a few seconds in his insane way, once more set out at headlong speed, stop again a few paces farther down the road, and repeat all his halting exercises. As I watched, I would wonder what the strange ways of this strange bird were a sign of; no one that I asked could tell me. But I know now that if I had asked enough Mexicans about the bull-bats so thick in the evening and the didos of the paisano in the sun, I should have found one to whom both were altogether accredited signs.
If butterflies are thick; if heel flies pester cattle in a herd much, making them kick out and run stiff-tailed as if locoed; if a steer licks his forefoot; if the little black Third Party' flies come down on the cattle in unusual numbers; if common flies gather much about the house or camp, then rain is predicted. If red ants are active generally and are particularly at work topping off their hills, a heavy shower may be expected, for they are damming against the water; just so, if winged ants come out and fly about, they have come forth to escape drowning and their unfortunate kinsmen without wings will be drowned by the ensuing waterfall. If prairie dogs dig their holes out and mound the earth up around the openings, they are said to be preparing against a down-pour. If gnats are bothersome, light showers are expected. Even the sluggish land terrapin is quickened by a foreknowledge of rain, and his ambling forth is hailed with hope. If earth worms appear crawling about, or if certain birds call, especially the bob-white, Mexican quail, and water-crow, then one may hear bodings of rain. The hooting of owls in the daytime is an especially good sign of rain. Owls are said to be particularly weather wise in the fall of the year, when they are regarded by some people as almost infallible in prophesying wet northers, even several days ahead. If frogs croak considerably, they are said to be "calling for water"; and it seems to be thought that their croaking prayers are made with such faith that they are veritable prognostications. Especial attention is paid to the croaking of tree-frogs, I have heard, but the habitations of these marsh-loving batrachia are few and far between "along the western bank of the Rio Grande."
Occasionally, a border Mexican guesses at the degree of severity of the coming winter by the amount of fur found on pelts, by the supposed thickness or thinness of corn shucks or of the bark on trees. These signs, however, which must have originated in the far north, are not much considered; for in all the Southwest, rain, rather than cold, is the weather topic of real interest. Speculation dwells on rain so unremittingly that comparatively few signs have to do with sleet, snow, and such other phenomena as more nearly concern people farther north. Of course, such commonly known harbingers of cold weather as migrating cranes, ducks, and geese are observed. The hog is popularly endowed with a deal of sensibility for the impending elements. Anticipatory of cold weather, hogs are remarked to be very energetic in making their beds-or nidos (nests), as the Mexicans call them. Squirrels industrious in gathering acorns or pecans are said to presage a cold winter; but pecan trees, oaks, and squirrels are all local in the border country, and this sign is hardly known by Mexicans in general. The paucity of squirrels is, numerically at least, overbalanced by millions of wood-rats, which sometimes devastate vast areas of prickly pear and build enormous nests of mesquite and huisache sticks; and I have heard that extra large nests indicate extra cold for the winter. When field larks appear in the fall, some people look to see if their breasts are very yellow; if so, a cold winter is to ensue. A cold spell may be anticipated by the extreme numerosity of field larks or by the presence of flocks of strange birds, such as the cedar waxwing; also by the way doves forsake the limbs of trees and settle on the ground.
A sign rare, and therefore especially significant, is the rising to the surface of hidden water at night. Of this phenomenon I possess a vivid recollection. During a severe drouth, all the water holes in a creek that ran through my father's ranch went dry, and we dug a well in the bed of it, from which we drew up water by hand for the cattle. One early morning when we came to draw the water, the hoof prints of the cattle in the sandy creek bed all contained an impression, infinitesimally thin, of water. During the night the water from the subterranean spring had risen. The Mexicans were exclamatorily sanguine over this sign of rain. Another rather curious expression of nature interpreted as a sign of rain sometimes is that of spider webs. In the mesquite country, at times, the spaces between bushes are all interlaced with them so thick that they appear like stringy clouds.
The more elemental, unsophisticated, and pastoral a folk, the more faith have they in, and the more "influence" attribute to, the moon. With them the signs of the zodiac are something more than rococo architectural decorations; they are signs to sow by and to geld by, to breed stock by and to wean children by. With them, the lunar phases, no matter how other signs read, are the final determinants of the weather. On remote ranches, in isolated camps, Mexican vaqueros, tank builders, pear burners, and fence riders may be in doubt occasionally as to the day of the week; they may argue the date of the month; but the age of the moon or the fixing of the date of the next new moon becomes a subject for long and absorbing discussion. Saving the dream book, the almanac is frequently the sole literary possession of one of these outpost Mexican families or camps; as often as not, even it is wanting. Then distinguished and honored that sage who knows La Epacta--the Epact, of which, in a more "cultivated" and tutored stratum of society, few of us, and those special students in astronomy, have ever heard. But scattered here and there through the Southwest are weather-scarred white men who know it. The old trail drivers, some of them, learned it from the Mexicans and, driving up the long trail, used it. My grandfather was a trail driver; I have heard him compute with La Epacta a hundred times. He taught it to me, and it is with a kind of pride that I give the formula.
La Epacta is simply the number of days old that the December moon is on the first day of January. Only once in every nineteen years do the lunar and calendar years begin simultaneously; hence, every year in the cycle of nineteen has a different Epacta. Now, there is a simple mathematical formula for finding the Epacta for any given year; but the astronomer of the camp and trail is simply told, without explanation, La Epacta for the year in which he is taught to use it. For the next, and for each succeeding, year he adds 11-the difference between the 365 solar days of the year and the 354 lunar days. When the total of his additions exceeds 30, he subtracts the 30 therefrom, and the remainder is La Epacta. For instance, La Epacta for 1922 is 4; for 1923 it will be 15 (4+11) ; for 1924 it will be 26 (15+11) ; and for 1925 it will be 7 (26+11-30).
In the old days when there was constant night herding, a foreknowledge of the dates of the dark of the moon or of a full moon was often very valuable, and many times the trail drivers had no other means for getting this knowledge than La Epacta. Not so many Americans know it now as knew it a generation ago perhaps, but a good many Mexicans still use it. By it pastores calculate months ahead that they may put the billy goats with their herds at the right time to make the period of gestation expire and the kidding begin when the moon is waxing.
The sign of the "wet moon" is in dispute. Some claim that if the new moon comes in tipped up, a wet quarter may be expected; just as many contrary minded natives hold that the tipped moon is "drained" and that unless the new moon is on its back the probability of rain is slight. All during the terrible drouths of 1916 and 1917, according to one observant rancher, every new moon was "dry" on its back, not a single time tipped up. Whatever the argument, though, the most drouth-oppressed pessimist has hope each month that the next new moon will bring forth wetness. These border folk, like the sailors, believe in the weather significance of a ring around the moon, la casa de la luna (the moon's house) as the Mexicans call it. I have seen them count the stars inside the ring-happily for their faith, without the aid of telescope-to determine how many days off the rain would be.
A cirrus formation of clouds, called by the Mexicans borregas en el suelo (sheep in the sky), is said to denote a rain, as is, likewise, a red sunset, called sometimes Sangre del Cristo (Blood of Christ). This latter sign is contrary to the philosophy of an old rhyme current among the border Americans-indeed, current over all England and America, I suspect:
However, there is another rhyme, undoubtedly English, that bears out the Mexican theory:
It is a question too old ever to be settled, though the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Christ rebuked for not being able to "discern the signs of the times" seem to have made no debate on the matter: "When it is evening, ye say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red'.
Many old timers, Mexicans as well as Americans, look upon a clear sky at night with an unusual number of stars visible, as a favorable sign of rain; similarly, if the stars appear near, rain is predicted. On the other hand, the singing of locusts, whirlwinds, steady south winds, and foggy mornings are, any or all, omens of drouth. "Smoky" weather indicates a change. The rainbow is, as elsewhere, taken as a promise of no more rain. If the sun shines while it is showering, it will shower at the same hour the following day. A steady east wind always arouses hope of rain, and there is a saying that if a shower comes from the west it will be followed by "a gully washer and fence lifter." Clearing off at night indicates further clouding up. Rain at night gives hope for its repetition. "Ground hog day" is always talked about by the Americans, but I have never heard it alluded to by any Mexican. Another belief wholly American is that a frost will not kill growing things in the "light of the moon"--that is, before the moon is full.
"A late winter, a hard winter," is a common saying. An early wet norther in the fall is taken as a prologue to a wet winter. On the other hand, early September "blows" from the north are "a mighty bad sign" ("a mighty bad sign" being always a sign of drouth). Another "mighty bad sign," or "poor sign," is the appearance of "heat clouds," clouds that come up in the afternoon from the Gulf.
"Sun dogs," sometimes called "weather dogs," are regarded by many old-timers as rain signs, though, so far as I know, not by the Mexicans. The "sun dog" is a rainbow colored splotch on the ground, generally on a hill-side, occuring north or south of the sun. If it appears to the north, then there will be a norther (perhaps wet) in three days; if to the south, then there will be a rain in three days.
I have heard of one ancient Mexican astrologically inclined who predicted rain from a certain way that El Camino de San Pedro (literally, St. Peter's Path--the Milky Way) seemed to be pointing.
Like people the world over, the borderers have certain physical idiosyncrasies that they interpret as premonitory of wet or cold weather; as, drowsiness, an aching corn, awakened rheumatism, stiff or aching joints. One day a ranch Mexican asked me how I felt. I replied that I felt well enough, but that for two or three days I had been very stiff and lazy.
"Well, then," he commented with sufficient gratification, "it is likely to rain."
As regards general seasonal weather, not a few among the older inhabitants declare that great changes have taken place in their lifetimes. Not long ago one man asked me if I had not noticed that the sun was farther in the south now than it was when I was a boy. He firmly holds that the country is on its way toward having a frigid climate. He is not alone in his contention that the winters are more severe than they used to be. It is a common complaint that drouths are more prevalent and the seasons less seasonable than they were in the "free range days." The reason generally assigned for this change is that in free range days the grass turf was better, attracting somehow more water from the clouds. As an illustration of the change, creeks and springs that are now dry are pointed out as once running. And there is no doubt as to the truth of this observation. Some old settlers hold, however, that the creeks and springs have gone dry as a result of the ground being cut up by sheep and a general overstocking of the fenced pastures rather than by a diminution of the average rainfall. On the other hand, a numerous element holds that rainfall follows the plow, and argues that certain counties in Central -Texas that are now farming districts abundantly supplied by rain, were in the open range days arid. This element maintains that with the coming of the farmer into the border country, drouths are diminishing in intensity.
A great majority of the weather signs which I have observed as extant on the Texas-Mexican border are no doubt common to other lands and peoples. Some are borrowed from Mexico; some are of Indian origin; some were brought hither by American settlers from distant states; some are a part of the weather lore of the world, as old as sowing and reaping and grazing and hunting among the sons of earth. A few may be local; such, for example, as the howling of coyotes, the bellowing of bulls, and the crawling of rattlesnakes. Finally, be it remembered, Texans have a saying: "In dry weather all signs fail." "Even," said a noble pioneer woman to me, "even the Indian sign, 'Black all around and pouring down in the middle,' may fail." And the most prolific Mexican weather prophet often admits that it will rain only "cuando Dios to quiera" (when God wills).