How would we fare without modern weather forecasting? If we lived before the electric telegraph, by what method would we plot our sea and air transit, choose what to do on our farms, or decide whether to bring along a scarf? Could we cope unaided by radiosondes, weather stations, reconnaissance aircraft, buoys, satellites and computer models? What would we do without boxes and balloons and barometers, without lonely men and women in excellent jumpers, without the somniferous shipping forecast telling us of German Bight, Humber, and Cromarty?
What if our only tools for predicting weather were dubious lore, our immediate surroundings and the behaviour of an eccentric cat? In an effort to tally our meteorological debt to the modern age, we decided to test early methods of weather prediction. The task was to determine whether it would rain outside the office every weekday at half ten and half four during the notoriously capricious first week of spring.
Each member of the team was assigned a different technique, from monitoring hair frizz to sniffing the air. Without the assistance of a single hygrometer, disdrometer or ceilometer, the results of our rigorous and deeply scientific research follow. It’s worth mentioning at this point that it didn’t rain once all week, and winter accoutrements were conspicuous by their absence from the office coat stand.
forecast one: “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky at morning, shepherd take warning.”
While this adage’s familiarity may seem due to the playground simplicity of the rhyme, versions of it exist in several languages. Shakespeare referenced the idea in a poem and Jesus used it in the Bible in place of showing a sign from heaven. The concept endures because it’s broadly accurate, based upon sunlight passing through the Belt of Venus. Despite my obsessive checking all week, though, I saw no red skies either in the morning or evening. The closest I came—and I’m counting this as a shepherd-delighting win—was on the Wednesday evening when the sky looked like mustard rubbed into sand.
If the predictive properties of that evening’s sky were limited, at least it provided a splendid view as I headed home. As the lesser-known saying goes: citron sky at night, cyclist’s delight.
forecast two: dogs eating grass
According to old wives and their 21st-century equivalent, the internet, dogs eat grass before it rains. Of all the techniques we flirted with, this is the only one considered to be completely false lore, so in effect it operated as an anti-control to the experiment.
Rosanna Durham’s intimidatinglyrefined poodles Della and Tally—if born in an early time they probably would have owned property—were carefully monitored on their daily walks. Rosanna reports, “The ladies ate no grass that we observed. I have it on good information that they did eat a little horse poo in Hyde Park, however. It’s their favourite snack.”
It’s difficult to know what to conclude from these findings, other than that dogs are pretty disgusting when you think about it.
forecast three: “aches and pains, coming rains.”
Foiled by the capriciousness of canines, old wives had more success observing their own bodies. Hippocrates noted a relationship between pain and weather as far back as 400 BC, while medical studies over the past century have shown that arthritis sufferers are affected by barometric pressure changes caused by approaching weather fronts. The possibility of becoming human weather houses was too appealing to let our office-wide lack of arthritis get in the way, so Linnea Enstrom stepped up.
Aside from a headache, slight shoulder twitch and self-inflicted stomach ache, her records note no maladies for the week. The only outlier was on Wednesday afternoon, when she wrote, “Sudden sharp pain in my neck, going down towards my shoulder. Rain is coming!” Given that it didn’t rain all week, the cause of her mystery pain remains tantalisingly unknowable, like the identity of Jack the Ripper, what really happened to the Mary Celeste, or why cocktails are now served out of jam jars.
forecast four: cat behaviour
In 1883, the U. S. War Department commissioned Lieutenant H. H. C. Dunwoody to investigate the correlation between folk wisdom and accurate weather prediction. Dunwoody accordingly produced Signal Service Notes, Issue 9, in which he expounds at length on the “weather wise” reputation of felines. The book claims that snoring cats indicate foul weather, cats lying on their heads with their mouths turned up indicate a storm, cats washing their faces with backs to a fire indicate a winter thaw, and cats sneezing, scratching themselves or washing their heads behind their ears indicate rain.
Tamara Vos volunteered her cat Misha to be an unwitting test subject and produced the following diary:
Sunday PM: Misha ate his dinner and commenced to wash himself entirely, washing behind his ears with his paw several times. To all intents and purposes it should rain tomorrow. I must remember my umbrella. Around midnight he bounces onto my bed, sneezes loudly, then burrows under the covers and immediately begins to snore. He’s never got in the bed before so I don’t know what that means. A storm?
Monday AM: Nothing out of the ordinary. While I brushed my teeth Misha sat in the bathtub and then licked the tap. PM: He fell asleep under the covers again. Can he breathe? It seems he thinks he’s human.
Tuesday AM: He rolled around on his back a lot and gave himself a thorough washing for about twenty minutes. PM: Slept all evening, obliviously. I hoovered and he didn’t care. Later: The best thing ever happened. Misha likes to sit at the edge of the bath while you’re in it, which in itself is quite wonderful. Tonight my boyfriend was in the bath, and Misha was teetering on the edge, but suddenly fell in. He splashed around, was pushed out, then raced in panic around the entire bathroom. He looked like a drowned rat. Might this mean some awful, weatherrelated catastrophe tomorrow?
Wednesday AM: He behaved like a regular cat. PM: Nope, still behaving like a commonor-garden cat. He has picked up the endearing habit of ‘catching’ sponges out of the kitchen sink, walking around the house with them in his jaws and bringing them to us proudly. This is annoying when you want to do the dishes and find the sponge in your bed upstairs. They’re often drenched sponges, so maybe he wants to be close to water?
Thursday AM: This morning Misha ate a bee and his mouth swelled dramatically. PM: His mouth is back to its normal size. We lit a fire. He didn’t react but did sit on top of the curtain rail all evening, and went on to snore quite heavily into the night.
Friday AM: He rolled around on his back in the sunshine this morning, but I think this has more to do with joie de vivre than portending bad weather. PM: Nothing. No sneezing, no snoring, no washing. I worry about his personal hygiene.
forecast five: guessing from america
The philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham made extensive plans for his body to be preserved after his death. His skeleton, now the property of University College London, is wheeled out on special occasions to college council meetings, where it is listed in minutes as “present but not voting.” Since departing for New York late last year, features editor Maggie Crow has become the Jeremy Bentham of Oh Comely: not present, but here in spirit. Out of sheer curiosity we asked her to take a stab at what the weather would be like in London. Here is her best impression of Mystic Meg:
Monday morning Grey and rainy. You dodge puddles en route to Tesco to pick up your egg mayonnaise sandwich. Monday evening No rain. Tonight is one of those nights where you can feel spring coming. The sky is clear and, though it isn’t warm, the chill has left the air. You decide to leave your jacket open.
Tuesday morning My instructions explicitly say that I can’t solicit weather information from my friends in London, but what can I do when I wake up to an email that says, “It’s been perfect weather for making kimchi”? There’s only one way to interpret that—it’s raining. Tuesday evening It’s still raining.
Wednesday Partly cloudy skies. Your umbrella is close at hand but you don’t use it.
Thursday morning Sunny and cool and clear. You drink your morning tea by an open window, and revel in the dissonant feeling of the warm light contrasting with the cool breeze on your skin. You decide to wear a dress. Thursday evening I bet it isn’t raining. Here, on the other hand, it’s snowing. Sigh.
Saturday What do you call a weather prediction that happens after the event? I forgot to make my prediction yesterday so I’m going to guess that it was another beautiful day in London. Partly cloudy with sunny breaks. You lucky ducks.
forecast six: frizzy hair and scent of the air
In a low pressure environment, such as before rain or when playing Scrabble against a seven-year-old nephew, decomposing plant matter releases molecules that often smell like compost. Similarly, hair might become frizzy in the humid period before a heavy rain. For a week Emily Knowles selflessly donated her nose and hair to the higher calling of scientific discovery:
Monday AM: The air smells like the countryside and my hair is wind-whipped, but without frizz. PM: The air smells like gooseberries. Tuesday AM: No compost smell detected and my hair is decidedly unfrizzy. PM: Bus fumes have taken over and my hair is weighed down with city pollution. Wednesday AM: The air just smells like air, really. My hair is too greasy to get frizzy. Nice. PM: Diesel, that’s what I can smell. I’ve tied my hair up. It’s not frizzy, but it’s never frizzy. Thursday AM: What does rain smell like anyway? I can smell when it’s raining: it smells like rain. PM: I’m really trying to put a finger on what the air smells like. I can’t. Melon? Dusty cars. Friday AM: Fresh spring air, fresh spring hair. PM: I can smell grass in the air, but that’s because I’m in a park. It’s a little like compost, but it’s not, it’s grass. It’s breezy and my hair is blowing in it.
a choose-your-own-adventure conclusion
Given the muddled nature of our results, there are three possible explanations for what occurred:
One. All of these methods work, and our practices were unsound.
Two. None of these methods work, and our practices were sound.
Three. Some of these methods work and some of them don’t. It’s hard to tell and their success is dependent upon a host of highly specific and fickle criteria, which is why cutting-edge weather forecasting technology is undoubtedly superior to spending a week trying to discern whether you can smell compost or not, and our practices were definitely, definitely unsound.
In any case, most of us are now planning to quit journalism and join the Met Office, so this is the final ever Oh Comely. It’s been fun!
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five. Photography by Toby Coulson. To read the original article click here.