Folklore in My Garden: The Wooly Bear

Growing up in the in Northeast U.S., my neighborhood friends and I always looked forward to fall, mostly because of Halloween and our pillowcases heavy with candy. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we’d meet up outdoors after school, shuffling through the growing piles of leaves we helped rake up and trying to settle upon what costume we’d adopt this year and how we ere going to make it. If we happened to spot a wooly bear caterpillar, we’d spend and hour or so with the little fella trying to decipher whether the coming winter would be mild or severe, based upon the relative size of its black and rust stripes. We never could agree on which color was the significant predictor, or how a fuzzy, inch long creeping critter might actually know what the season would bring. Today I stumbled upon an article from the venerable Old Farmers Almanac, which made everything clear at last.

In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, made up his mind to figure out scientifically, once and for all, whether the wooly bear legend was fact or fiction. Over the course of eight years, he collected caterpillars from New York’s Bear Mountain, and counted the number of rust-colored segments each one had, compiling the data into records of the average number that occurred each year. He used the data to forecast weather for the coming winter. If the central rusty band comprised a third or more of the caterpillar body , folklore held, and Dr. Curran predicted, that winter would be mild. Conversely, if the black bands at each end predominated, severe weather was due.

What did Dr. Curran discover? Well, his results suggested that there was indeed some merit to the folk belief! Huzzah!

As a scientist, he was careful to emphasize that his samples were too small to prove the caterpillar’s forecasting prowess. But he founded The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, which each year visited Bear Mountain to check them out. Thirty years following the society’s final excursion, the park’s nature center took over the annual wooly bear count and predictions, without guaranteeing accuracy.

They can’t be any worse than the forecasters on tv, right?

On a side note, I try to avoid direct contact with such creatures as insects, amphibians, and reptiles, but the wooly bear is the one exception. I have no problem with gently picking them up to hold for a few moments before releasing them to resume their search for the perfect shelter in which to overwinter. can’t wait to spot the first one this fall….

President Lincoln and Fido

Heather on History is one of my favorites among the blogs I follow. She’s running a series on presidential pets, many of which I remember. But I never knew that the Lincolns were once dog owners, so am reposting Heather’ s article for You’re History readers. Heeer’s Fido!

Presidential Pets: Abraham Lincoln’s Dog Fido

Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.

During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.


Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.

Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.

Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, “The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.

CT History: The Glastonbury Cows Make History

When I was growing up, we used to joke that there were more cows in Glastonbury than people, and perhaps there were. That’s no longer the case, but this afternoon I came across this article, which made me smile. You go, girls!


From the newsletter of  New England Historical Society.

In the early days of the fight for women’s voting rights, Connecticut’s Glastonbury Cows were the stars of the show. In June of 1869 the tax collector in Glastonbury, Conn. asked two elderly sisters to pay their road tax early, which they did. Abby and Julia Smith were then surprised when the town accidentally billed them for the tax again in October.image
When they asked that the town correct the matter, the tax collector, Albert Crane, refused. When they tried to enter Town Meeting to raise the issue, they were turned away. And thus, two suffragettes were born.
The Smiths were wealthy, quite possibly the wealthiest home in Glastonbury. Their father was a one-time clergyman who pursued a career in law. He left his daughters a large land holding, investments and a farm. Their mother left them a sizable inheritance, as well.
The frustrated sisters paid the tax a second time, but they were furious about their lack of political power. They began attending women’s suffrage rallies. And with the passing years, their frustration grew. Their taxes were increased. And in 1874, they were told they could not let the tax go unpaid in exchange for a 12 percent interest charge – a courtesy afforded other taxpayers.
The Smiths became convinced that their taxes were only being increased on properties owned by women, and that they couldn’t delay payment because they were women. They became convinced that modern women needed a vote, and decided to stop paying taxes until they could.
“Taxation Without Representation,” was their rallying cry. The Smiths joined a group of women suffragist activists who chose taxes as their protest weapon of choice. Abby Smith was a regular writer on the topic:
“We have lately sent a day in celebrating the heroism of those who threw overboard the tea; but how trifling was the tea-tax, and how small the injustice to individuals compared with this one of our day!”
In 1874, the matter came to a head when the tax collector sized seven cows from the Smith sisters and auctioned them off to pay the taxes. The sisters used a straw buyer to retrieve most of the cows, and the story of the Glastonbury sisters and their cows went international.
As the story blossomed, it sparked heated newspaper columns. The Smith sisters’ critics argued that the pair were receiving all sorts of services in exchange for their money: roads, schools, police protection, etc. In one clumsy analogy, a writer noted they were like children, who also couldn’t vote. The arguments against the two only made their case stronger.
The supporters of the Smiths, on the other hand, took great pleasure in promoting their story. Those who didn’t see the rightness of the Smiths arguments were: “too stupid to think, too selfish to feel for others, or too cowardly to stand up for the right not yet lifted into popular recognition.’
The cows themselves, meanwhile, became celebrities and knickknacks woven out of their hair were hot sellers at fundraising bazaars that promoted voting rights for women. Julia published a popular book, Abby Smith and Her Cows. For several years through 1878 the process of seizing part of the sisters’ herd of Alderneys in lieu of tax payment and the Smiths buying them back continued.
Because of their Alderney cows, the Smiths were celebrated at rallies, testified to congress and were dinnertime conversation in homes across America. In 1878, at the age of 81, Abby died in July. In 1879, Julia, age 87, decided to marry for the first time, and her husband began paying the taxes on her property, and she repaid him. A compromise of love.
Julia Smith did not contain her feminism to tax protests and suffrage. She also published, in 1876, the only translation of the Bible written by a woman. Julia’s father was a student of the Sandemanian school of Christianity, which believed worship needed a conscious, mental act rather than being a spiritual matter. The apple apparently didn’t fall far from the tree.
Julia, curious about what might have been altered in the King James version of the Bible, decided to translate it herself from Greek, Hebrew and Latin texts. Her texts were literal and made no effort to update the language or provide context to Biblical stories.
In 1881, tax collector Crane was voted from office. When the town charged that several thousand dollars were missing, he said his books had been stolen and he couldn’t square accounts. “I’m not surprised at anything he says,” Julia wrote.
In 1886, Julia died having relocated from Glastonbury to Hartford. Like many early suffrage agitators, she died without seeing women vote. It would be the 1890s before women were voting in some elections in Connecticut and 1920 before women voted nationwide.

Fiber Folklore – Baa, baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes marry, have I,

Three bags full;

One for my master,

One for my dame,

But none for the little boy

Who cries in the lane.

This nursery rhyme probably dates to the Middle Ages, when England was the major player in the international wool trade. A tax had been placed upon wool, with 1/3 going to the”master” (local lord), 1/3 to the “dame” (the church), and the rest to the “little boy” in the lane (local farmer). In recent years it has become a subject of controversy, with early childhood teachers converted black sheep to rainbow sheep to avoid any hint of racism.

The color of the sheep in the rhyme must also be of some significance. Black wool is difficult to dye and would therefore seem to have little use in making textiles. However many shepherds prized black fleece and kept one dark sheep in a flock of white ones. When the fiber was carded for spinning a little of the black was mixed in with the white to produce a light-grey wool. The cloth made from ‘grey’ wool was believed to be warmer and more weather proof than that made from only white fleece. Unlike the pure black wool it could be easily dyed.

On the other hand, a single black ram could contaminate the whiteness of a flock’s fleece. This is probably the source of the unflattering phrase, “black sheep of the family.” The first record in print is from Charles Macklin’s The man of the world, a comedy, 1786:

“O, ye villain! you – you – you are a black sheep; and I’ll mark you.”

I’m not sure that a breed of sheep with pure black wool actually exists.  In days of yore, a “black” sheep was any sheep that wasn’t white. Most  dark fleeces have at least a tinge of noticeable brown or gray in their fleece. If anyone knows of a pure black, I’d like to see a picture and know the breed.

Monday Morning Poem: Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver (1935 –   )

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.

Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Perhaps the most famous four line rhyme in the English language, Mary Had a Little Lamb is based upon and incident in the life of one Mary Sawyer, who grew up in Sterling, MA. But that is about all authorities can agree upon when attributing authorship to the verse.

Two New England towns claim bragging rights to the children’s poem . Years ago, the town of Sterling, Mass. erected a statue of a lamb to celebrate the birthplace of Mary Sawyer. In 1815, young Mary was followed to Sterling’s schoolhouse by her pet lamb. Her classmate, John Roulston, wrote the poem. In other versions, Roulston is described as a visiting Harvard student. It is said by some that Mary knitted some of her lamb’s wool into mittens and stockings that she sold to benefit Civil War soldiers, or alternately, to help save the Old South Meeting House in Boston.

Newport, New Hampshire, claims that the poem was actually written by their local poet Sarah Josepha Hale, and that she invented the lamb at school incident herself. Hale is honored in Newport with a simple plaque. In fact, Sarah Hale was the first to publish the poem in a book called Poems for Our Children, in 1830. Sterling maintains that the first three stanzas of Roulston’s poem were incorporated by Hale into her own verse.

There is a different theory, that the rhyme was written by an anonymous. Harvard student. Still others, (probably not haling from either Massachusetts or New Hampshire), contend that the rhyme predates Mary Sawyer, and originated in old England as a sort of religious parable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a little lamb (Jesus, of course) whose fleece was snow white (Jesus was without sin). The Jesus -Lamb is sure to go with his believers wherever they go.

As for the Sterling schoolhouse, it was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass; it’s authenticity as the very schoolhouse immortalized in the poem may be wishful thinking, however, as by that time it had been much modified and was serving as a barn. Mary Sawyer became Mrs. Tyler, worked as a schoolteacher and as a matron in a retreat for the insane, and died in 1889. She is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The house where she was born still stands in Sterling (as of 2003).

Nathan Hale Homestead’s Great Pyramid – George’s Folly?

When guests exit the visitor’s center at Nathan Hale Homestead, they invariably ask, “What’s that big stone thing over there?” and “Why do you have Thomas Hooker’s bones?” (Thomas Hooker being a founder of CT.) The short answers are, “A memorial pyramid” and “We don’t, it only looks that way.” Wait a minute, a pyramid in Coventry, CT?

Memorial pyramids have a lengthy history, particularly in England, where they, along with various other odd structures, are often referred to as “follies.” The Hale pyramid was constructed in 1938 by the man who restored the house and property of Nathan Hale’s family, George Dudley Seymour. A patent attorney from New Haven, Seymour devoted his life to historic preservation, and while he owned Hale Homestead, he usually summered there, a gentleman farmer reforesting the area and tending to his animals. Among the latter was a cow named Octavia, after a Hale daughter-in-law; for a brief time Seymour ran a small cheese-making business, presumably in partnership with Octavia. His favorite animal companion, however, was a retired war horse named Thomas Hooker Bones. Seymour is pictured above, proudly astride Bones in front of the Hale house. TH Bones undoubtedly enjoyed his peaceful life following his WWI military service, and when his noble, courageous spirit departed this earth in 1937, Seymour decided that Bones was too fine a character to warrant a final trip to the knacker’s. He interred THB right on the historic property, immediately behind the house, no easy task, as a horse is much larger than a dog or cat. And he set about memorializing Bones in a way that not even Nathan Hale received. A few years later, the black dog that can be seen in front of horse and rider is Sheba, and when she died, she was also buried there.

There is a precedent to the story of George’s folly on Farley Down, west of Winchester, England. Erected in 1740 by Sir Paulet St John, this much older pyramid commemorates St John’s horse, who survived a horrific fall into a 25 foot chalk pit while fox-hunting. The horse might have had second thoughts about his good fortune when St John renamed him “Beware Chalk Pit”, but that’s another story. At any rate, Beware’s exploit is commemorated in the shape of a 30 foot high pyramid that still stands today. TH Bone’s pyramid is only half that height, but in the hills of rural New England, is no less a marvel.

TH Bones’ Latin epitaph, extolling his exemplary character:

Post revised 9/29/14.

Folklore: Lions, Lambs, and March

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is probably the most famous and popular saying about this transitional month. But why those particular animals? Some authorities believe that the lion and lamb saying has a heavenly connection. The constellation Leo, the lion, is rising in the east at the beginning of March, hence the “comes in like a lion,” while Aries, the ram, sets in the west at the end of March, and so “will go out like a lamb.”

Perhaps the strongest literary and historical association of this month is not with the weather, but with the “ides”, or middle day of the month, in the ancient Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, who in Shakespeare’s play unwisely ignores the soothsayer’s warning, “Beware the Ides of March!”, was murdered on the Ides (15th) of March in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius.

imageThe proverbial phrase “mad as a March hare” has a similar origin: a “March hare” is a brown hare in the breeding season, noted for its leaping, boxing, and chasing in circles in its mating ritual.

The best known of March holidays, if Easter falls in April, is St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Saint Patrick used the

three-leafed clover (or shamrock) to explain the holy Trinity and cleansed Ireland of snakes by driving them into the sea with his staff (or shillelagh). To this day, shamrocks and shillelaghs are well known symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, and, there are no snakes in Ireland. St Patrick’s real name was Maewyn Succat. No wonder he changed it.

Monday Morning Poem: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where   
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.