More Auguries of Phudd

LAST summer I told how the people in this quiet valley, at the base of the fir-green hill called Phudd Mountain, foretell the weather neither by barometers nor by reliance on their newspapers, but by such omens and premonstrations as the anticking of maple leaves and bullfrogs. This was chronicled as ‘The Auguries of Phudd’ and was all very well as far as it went. But an autumn has passed since it was written, and the silence and bitter cold of winter have visited the valley and departed, and I have come to know better the Prophets of Phudd and their fashions in soothsaying. I have become acquainted, for example, with Chaomantic Chants, and I think it is time to tell about these things.

The people of Phudd Valley may appear in the census lists as poultry farmers or dairymen, hog raisers or ‘hired hands,’ but of course they are no such thing. They are, by instinct and an ancient heritage, oracles and readers of earth omens. In them persists the antique habit of looking wonderingly at the universe, scrutinizing its particles, and finding them big with portent. No thing, to these mantologic friends of ours, is merely what it seems; the small pranks of cats are brimming with cosmic significance, the flutter of a starling’s wing has its secret message, and in all the phenomena of earth from dawn to dawn there are bodings to be interpreted.

Small children are wont to live in a shadowland where all the creatures of the world and all the happenings of earth are invested with properties — magic and delightful properties — which parents matter-offactly decline to see. Here in my small and very aged farmhouse (which looks, to be sure, quite like a farmhouse of some child’s imagining) I have come to feel as though I lived once more in just such a shadowland of wonderful implications.

It was in September, I think, that I found the fuzzy black and brown caterpillar. A very fuzzy caterpillar it was, and it was progressing laboriously through the white dust of Phudd lane on its way to a mullen stalk. I think this encounter with a traveler so small, so commonplace, so far outside the realm of my human world, would not have arrested my steps for a moment — would scarcely have given the tiniest prick to my consciousness — had not I been overtaken at that moment by old Mr. Valkenburgh. (Mr. Valkenburgh poses in the world as a mower of hay, but actually he is a soothsayer.)

‘Ho, ho!’ cried Mr. Valkenburgh, peering down at the caterpillar through his steel-rimmed glasses. ‘Ho, ho! Caterpillar says winter ends in February.’

He explained the reading of the omen as we trudged along the dusty lane. The relative width of the black and the brown bands — that was it. I am not able to remember all the details of the divination. But I know that caterpillars — ever since that bright September noonday in the lane when Mr. Valkenburgh hitched up his blue overalls and spoke his Delphic piece — have become for me enchanted things. They are not bristly little worms, but magical presages of future days, hairy heralds telling the secrets of the cosmos to the Prophets of Phudd.

I spoke a little while ago of Chaomantic Chants. You, I suppose, may think of them as rustic adages or proverbs, but if you could hear Grandma Krause deliver them at her dinner table (brandishing her fork the while, as one might swing a censer) perhaps you would feel how deeply rooted they are in Phudd Hill’s ancient earth lore. Today a heavy fog has hung low over our snowy hills, and the hemlocks on Phudd’s summit have been visible, when at all, only as the ghosts of trees. I stopped in to see Grandma Krause on my afternoon walk, and I spoke to her of how the clouds were clinging to the hilltop. Had this, I wondered, some significance? (I might have spared myself the wonder, for Grandma Krause, acknowledged Prophetess Superior of all the region, has yet to find the natural phenomenon from which no significance can be wrested.) Solemnly, as is her way, she took her hand from the handle of the butter churn and with her forefinger described a vague arc in the air: —

‘Mist on the hills;
Water for the mills.’

I call it a Chaomantic Chant, and you, perhaps, will call it a jingle. ‘Mist on the hills; water for the mills.’ In my library is an anthology called Poetry of Earth; I have found nothing in it to match the simplicity of statement, the earth savor, of the couplets intoned by Grandma Krause. ‘Mist on the hills; water for the mills.’ Grandma has a hundred such — all to be spoken solemnly, prophetically.

The weather wisdom of the Prophets of Phudd is very old, its roots long lost and scarcely to be guessed.

When at night the roosters crow,
On the morrow look for snow.

How many generations ago did a Prophet, awake in the frosty stillness of a winter night, first devise this reading for the omen? What rhymester sage first proclaimed with Pythagorean positiveness that

The February day of thaw
Is frost in May, and that’s the law?

I do not know the answers to these questions, and neither does the most erudite of our neighboring diviners. But I do know that in some distant time, long before Grandma Krause’s grandma was born, there was wrought an enchantment which the passage of the years has not dispelled. In the high hawk hovering above Phudd Hill, in the wind-combed strands of flying clouds, and even in the long lean icicles that hang from my windows, there are secret signs and signals. Yes, even in the icicles, for

The length of the icicle you see
Is how deep to-morrow’s snow will be.

As yet I have heard no Chaomantic Chant concerning ‘frittling’ weather; probably this is because even the most gifted soothsayers have been daunted by a word so unrhymable. When the weather cannot, as some city people say, ‘ make up its mind what to do,’ — when rain and sunlight alternate erratically and uncertainly, — that is what the sages of Phudd call ‘frittling,’ and an admirable word I think it is. Perhaps, in remote days gone by, one of the forefathers of the valley may have composed a Frittle Chant, but if so it has long since been interred with him in the little burying ground by the side of the lane.

I can remember how, when I was turning from a little boy into a medium-sized one, I was continually being dismayed to learn that my storybook world was all a fraud, that dogs and cats were not able to talk, and that there were no Unseen Creatures lurking excitingly behind lichen-covered boulders and in the great boles of elm trees. But I wonder, now, was I possibly a little too credulous of these disheartening facts, a little too readily swayed by the brisk iconoclasms of science? Here in the countryside of Phudd the caterpillars know how to judge the length of a winter, and last Friday the blacksmith told me that he looked for a stormy week-end. He knew. He had consulted an owl.

There is much to confuse. To-day it has been bright and cracklingly cold. Not a solitary mare’s-tail nor the hint of a mackerel have I been able to discern in all the arch of frosty blueness. Yet now, even as I write this paragraph, my black tabby cat has unmistakably begun to scrub her left ear with her forepaw. An urban weather forecaster, confronted by such a deadlocking conflict of portents, might be pardoned for breaking down in utter irresolution. But the sages of Phudd are never at a loss, and I think I have learned to take a leaf from their magic book. To-morrow, I predict, it will frittle.