• Last modified 3508 days ago (Sept. 16, 2009)


Watts' wooly worms

One day last week, I was driving to Marion to deliver or pick up something related to being in the newspaper world.

As I tooled up Nighthawk Road, I noticed lots of gorgeous sunflowers, some nicely ripening milo, a tinge of red or yellow in a couple of trees, and 9,247 woolly caterpillars working their way to the side of Nighthawk Road on which they were not.

I haven’t thought of wooly caterpillars in years.

Back when Bill Krause was editor of the Peabody Gazette-Bulletin; he was in cahoots every fall with Larry Watts, local stand-up comic, rural mail carrier, and wildlife detective. Watts was a self-proclaimed expert on wooly caterpillars. Eventually he had so much experience driving on county roads and watching the wooly worms hoofing it to the other side that he was able to forecast the coming winter weather just by observing the darned things.

It must take a long time to deliver mail all over the countryside when one is on a scientific mission. But that is a topic for another column!

Watts studied the heft and thickness of the caterpillar’s fuzz. He examined the color depth and the width — or lack thereof — of any stripes. If more woolies were going west than east across a blacktop, he figured out the dire predictions of that behavior and vice versa. If they were fatter or skinnier than in past years, he knew why. Large antennae, small antennae, no antennae … didn’t matter. It was all there — or not — for a reason. Watts didn’t formulate his theories in haste.

He would bring the observations back to the coffee shop at the front of Don’s drug store and toss them out to other rural experts, drinking nickel coffee for most of an afternoon. This was important stuff. Watts’ surveillance was then mixed with the personal experiences, family fables, old tales, and suspicions of whichever geezers were in attendance. Over time, the wooly caterpillar of southern Marion County took on mythic proportion as Watts began to forecast the upcoming weather based on his observations.

He would put together his predictions for the months between fall and spring and report them to editor Krause who would dutifully pass them on to the rest of us in the newspaper. The information was fun and over time was correct — at least now and then. Like global warming, Watts’ theories had their proponents and their detractors. So what else is new?

I gotta tell you, I was all about this stuff. As I have said several times before in this column, I would go to great lengths to avoid a frigid winter. I never again want to live anywhere that hosts a winter festival or votes for ice sculptures or snow queens. Blech!

Anyone who could tell me it was going to be 60 degrees five or six times in January was on my list of heroes!

I love the plains and mild winter weather. At first I couldn’t believe my good luck landing here and I wanted as many long-term forecasts as possible. I didn’t think that I could head-off bad weather, but I just wanted to be prepared, you know?

So I am offering this column as an appreciative gesture to Larry Watts and Bill Krause for giving me the information I wanted back in the 1970s and ’80s. And I am REALLY sorry I squished all those wooly caterpillars out on Nighthawk Road the other day. I tried to avoid them, but they were just everywhere!

What do you think that means?

— Susan marshall

Last modified Sept. 16, 2009