The Lore of the Land: Weather Forecasting with Nature

Words by
Lucy Munro
Images by
Lucy Munro
| September 19, 2018

The best thing about the house I grew up in was the sun room. With ceiling high windows that framed the landscape below, we’d flock together behind the glass to observe the changing weather patterns moving across the skies. In the background, Mum could always be heard muttering old proverbs that she’d learned from her father: ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in morning, shepherd’s take warning.’ They were sentimental predictions, but more often than not, her weather forecasts were bang on.

The weather is the wheel that rural Australian life depends on. When things are moving smoothly – the rain is falling regularly and the sun is shining – every living being benefits. But when the rains stop, things can fall apart quickly, and country communities brace for tough times ahead. Over many thousands of years people have read the complex patterns of the Australian landscape to forecast upcoming weather events.

Native plants in bloom in early Spring, like this Acacia longifolia, are often interpreted as a sign of a good season to follow

Farmers, who are so often characterised by their pragmatism, swear blindly by these superstitious predictions – whether its watching for the moon to hang the right way up before planting a paddock or judging when to bring the washing in by the seconds counted between lightning flashes and thunder rumbles. Perhaps it’s because the weather reports are so often wrong – despite great advances in technology and forecasting methods, the promises of a wet weekend ahead, delivered from a shiny newsroom hundreds of kilometres away, regularly pass by unfulfilled. The natural world on the other hand is fluid and ever changing, allowing space for hope and possibility in circumstances that may otherwise seem impossibly dire. There’s always the chance a kookaburra may experience a sudden fit of laughs and the dry spell could break.

These messages and signals of the natural world are part of the multi-sensory language of weather lore.

The first written theory of weather forecasting was penned by Aristotle in 340BC. Meteorologica was a treatise that observed seasonal changes in the clouds, sun, moon and sky and analysed repeated patterns around weather events like hail, dew, frost and mist.

Unbeknownst to the Greek philosopher, Indigenous Australians had already developed a way of life in sync with the climatic rhythms of nature tens of thousands of years beforehand. The flowering of different trees and shrubs and the behaviours of animals throughout the year communicated a range of messages to the Aborigines – when to expect a monsoon season, if it was time to hunt, burn, or travel between the Songlines of the Dreamtime. The arrival of plovers in the Simpson Desert, for example, is said to have indicated the beginnings of seasonal rains. Survival depended on the cultural ability to translate the story of the landscape into practical methods of living, a technique Indigenous Australians excelled at. Many indigenous weather forecasting methods have seeped through the generations and continue into today – spotting black cockatoos and certain flowering natives in early Spring are promising signs of a wet season to follow.

In 2007, the Bureau of Meteorology began working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to develop an online database of their lore. The Indigenous Weather Knowledge (IWK) project shares the seasonal weather patterns of various Aboriginal nations throughout the year and includes information such as flowering times of trees and shrubs, the migratory behaviours of various animals and how these patterns tie in with the changing seasons. For example, in Yawuru Country, around the West Australian town of Broome, the calendar has six seasons. The wet season, or Man-gala, is determined by the availability of yams, cocky apple and wild pears, the nesting of barn swallows and ducks and an abundance of snakes, lizards and stingrays.

The IWK not only recognises the ancient climatic knowledge of Aboriginal Australians, but also seeks to uncover additional methods scientists can utilise to accurately predict future weather events.”

Storm clouds rolling in

We humans consider ourselves to be the most intelligent of all living things,” writes Australian author and researcher, Glenda John in her book, Nature’s Weather Watch. But “animals, birds, insects and plant life have a far greater ability to sense and interpret the signs that may affect their survival.”

Glenda’s book contains a collection of weather forecasting observations and proverbs that have been used by folk throughout history. As well as Indigenous origins, these have been gathered from astronomers, travellers, merchants, migrants and farmers across the generations and are still widely, and accurately, used today.

Here are some of my favourite weather-lore forecasts:

The sky, the sun and the moon:

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in morning, shepherd’s take warning.
Or,
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s take warning.

Cold night, stars bright

Rain before seven, clear before eleven

When the wind is out of the east, tis neither good for man or beast

A ring around the moon means the rain will come soon

Cloud shapes – flat bottomed clouds mean no rain. Layers of cloud moving different directions indicates bad weather. Thin wispy cirrus clouds and altocumulus clouds mean rain within three days. If they appear together rain will arrive in one day.

A low crescent moon on its back is holding the water in, cradling the rain. Flipped the other way around, the water is tipped out and rain will follow.

The time between lightning and thunder to predict how close a storm is – every second equals a km.

Animals:

Bees will not swarm before a storm – bees are unable to fly well in storms, hence the return of your bee family to the hive indicates rain soon.

Ants build their nests up before wet weather so they don’t get filled with rain.

Horses/donkeys bray before rain.

Black cockatoos in dry weather indicate rain. The number of birds is the number of days of rain to follow.

Kookaburras laughing in the day means rain is close.

Baby wildlife, especially bunnies in early Spring suggests a good season ahead.

Cows lay down before a storm hits to conserve energy.

Plants:

Native plants in early flower mean rain is coming.

The aromas of flowers are said to be stronger before a storm

Convolvus, four o’clocks (Mirablis), dandelions and tulips won’t open their blossoms if rain is coming.

The stink horn fungus (Phallaceae) and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) open up before rain.

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