My Great Grandmother was a Dirt Mage

How 19th and 20th century farmers interpreted the meteorological elements to predict the future

J.A. Taylor


Their wizard caps were John Deere hats, their tunics long-sleeved plaid shirts, their servants Massey Ferguson tractors, and their grimoire the Farmer’s Almanac.

Early 19th and early 20th century American farmers acquired a certain set of skills that seem magical to us. They could interpret the meteorological elements to predict the future—reading the signs of the heavens, observing the budding of the trees, and studying the behavioral patterns of animals. These practices helped them know when to plant in order to reap the most bountiful harvest. In one sense, they had to know how to do this because their livelihood depended on it.

Learning from a Weather Prophetess

In February this year, it was unseasonably warm in the Upstate of South Carolina. We didn’t get our typical snow, but endured six thunderstorms and an eventual tornado. It was one of the warmest Springs in recorded history. I remembered my great grandmother’s line. “If it thunders in February, it’s going to be a cold May,” she would rattle off.

This year, I decided to heed her meteorological foretelling. We delayed budgeting for our pool membership. I kept firewood close and dry. Turns out, her prediction was perfect — it’s been one of the coldest Mays on record in nearly a century.

William Tell and Hassie Mynatt. Image courtesy of author.

Wisdom from a Dirt Mage

“You need help in the garden tomorrow?” I asked my friend John.

“Nah. We won’t plant nuthin’ til after the new moon.”

“But you planted corn last week,” I protested. “Isn’t it going to be pretty tomorrow?”

John laughed, assuming I was being funny. I wasn’t being funny — only ignorant. John doesn’t plant according to the calendar, he plants according to his lunar guide in the sky.