When God looked up th' work of his hands an' called hit good, he war sure a lookin' at this here Ozark country.” - The Shepherd of the Hills
Ain't that the truth? Words published in 1907 – 99 years ago – ring true in my heart today. The only thing about the Ozarks is we do have to deal with a mite of bad weather, since we skirt the edge of tornado alley and all. Don't ever call a tornado a tornado, though, if you think one might be possible. Say something else instead, like “bad weather is coming.” It's bad luck to call a tornado by its name. That's a genuine old Ozark country superstition, recorded for posterity a long time ago by my favorite Ozark folklorist of all time, Vance Randolph (1892-1980).
Mr. Randolph spent his life in the Ozarks – mostly the Missouri Ozarks – and early on started recording sayings, superstitions, stories, and other folklore from the region. Some of the people he talked to were born well back in the 1800s, and he would write down things he heard and witnessed, either in the course of daily life or by direct interview, and file it away. Later, he took what he had compiled (and never ceased compiling) and published a number of books and articles on old Ozark ways and folklore.
Living in the Ozarks, Randolph was well acquainted with severe weather, and the beliefs associated with such. Like he did with everything else he heard, Randolph wrote it down in order to share with the world.
Because of Vance Randolph, we know that when you see a hog looking up at the sky for no apparent reason, it means a tornado is probably coming. We also know that if you see a hog carrying a piece of wood in its mouth, bad weather is on its way. So what if a hog is looking up at the sky WHILE carrying a piece of wood in its mouth? Does that signify an F-5? Or does it just doubly verify that SOMETHING bad is coming?
When a tornado is in fact coming, by the way, you can save your house and property by sticking a knife into the ground, with the sharp edge facing the direction the tornado is coming from. The funnel cloud is supposed to split around the knife and go around your house. Or so Mr. Randolph was told by some folks who probably believed it.
I love crows. They remind me of the Ozarks. Dark and mysterious but beautiful in their way. One old Ozark superstition has it that when you see crows fly erratically a wind storm is on its way. That is probably due to the fact that crows are higher off the ground, and thus more sensitive to changes in the wind than we flightless humans, but let's call it a superstition.
You can watch cats too. They will point with their tails in the direction a nasty storm is about to come from. Also, if cats lick their fur against the grain, it means rain is coming.
Of course, most storms don't bring tornadoes. Most just bring rain. I do love a rainshower. I like lightning too so long as it doesn't hit me. If you see lightning in the southern sky, it supposedly means it won't actually rain that day or night. Maybe that means if the lightning is due south. You can protect your house against lightning by burying the guts of a black hen under your fireplace hearth, if you have one, on what is known as “Old Christmas”, which is 12 days after December 25, or January 6. Don't ever burn the wood from a tree that has been struck by lightning, by the way, or risk bringing down lightning on your home. Walnut trees are the most susceptible to lightning too, so stay clear of them during a storm. If you see where lightning strikes the ground, you can actually find the lightning bolt, which is a three-foot long pierce of iron, forked at the end, buried in the ground. Or, um, so says the Ozark superstition, recorded by Vance Randolph. Lightning will cause the milk to sour in the refrigerator too, unless you put a rusty nail in the jug first as a precaution. Back when this was actually believed, there weren't refrigerators, of course, but who's to say that electrostatic force can't still penetrate?
I'll leave you with this: If a storm is coming, drive the dogs away from your house. A dog's tail can attract lightning.
I know most of these sound silly, but many folks in the Ozarks really did believe this stuff once. It's all part of the cultural background of the place we call home.
-Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News.