My Great Grandmother was a Dirt Mage

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

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.

Like my great grandmother, John descended from a lengthy line of farm folk who survived by learning how to read the signs of the heavens. I affectionately refer to them as “Dirt Mages.” Their wizard caps are John Deere hats, their tunics long-sleeved plaid shirts, their servants Massey Ferguson tractors, and their grimoire the Farmer’s Almanac. If you want to share in their magical practices, here are some of their known methods — the rites and rituals of reading the heavens and performing a little “dirt magic.”

Lunar Predictions

  • The color of the rising moon was a signal of rain. If the moon were orange or red, it revealed particles or moisture collecting in the atmosphere, which indicated coming rain.
  • The clarity of the moon was also used to predict the weather. There’s an old saying, “If the new moon holds the old moon in her lap, fair weather.” This is a reference to the visibility of the dark part of the moon — if it can be seen, it meant fewer particles in the air — a sign the weather would be fair.
  • “Ring around the moon means rain’ll come real soon,” is another old phrase. A colorful ring around the lunar body revealed ice crystals in the atmosphere. This was also a sign it could snow.

Seasonal Predictions

  • “Ash before Oak, choke. Oak before Ash, splash.” This is a longer-term prediction that helped determine whether it would be a rainy or a dry summer. Ash trees and Oak trees have different root systems. Where Oak has deep roots, Ash has a shallow root system. Depending on how dry it had been in Autumn or Winter determined how much moisture remained in the topsoil. If it had been a damp winter, the topsoil was rich in moisture, causing the Ash trees to bud before Oaks. This indicated a dry, hot summer (choke). If the topsoil was dry from the dry winter, the Oak would bud before Ash, and it was expected nature would balance itself and offer a wet, rainy summer (splash).
  • Summer was the most important season for farmers to predict, but they also needed to forecast other seasons. Crops such as broccoli, carrots, turnip greens, and green onions are cool-weather vegetables.
  • “When deer are in a gray coat in October, expect a severe winter.” This well-known weather proverb came into being from keen observers who drew correlations between animal coats and the impending harshness of the climate. Think of it as nature’s warning to help us pay attention and prepare.
  • Bird nesting patterns were also known to indicate seasonal weather. “When the swallow’s nest is high, the summer’s very dry. When the swallow buildeth low, you can safely reap and sow.” There are countless proverbs based on mammals as weather prophets.

One of the most fascinating measurements developed during this time was Dolbear’s Law, published in 1897. Based on the chirping rate of the crickets, it is said to be an accurate prediction of the temperature within 1 degree. The formula is simple: count the number of chirps within 14 seconds, then add 40 to get the temperature (35 chirps in 14 seconds, + 40 = 75 degrees Fahrenheit).

Perhaps on the next summer evening, you ought to neglect the internet, sit outside, count the chirping of the crickets, and take your first step toward becoming a dirt mage.

If you enjoyed this story, you may enjoy this fictional piece about ‘dirt magic’:

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