Nature’s eerie omen of global warming

Not even one 80-year-old member of my family has seen anything like it.

John Hoff

This will be the mildest winter in Minnesota’s recorded history. We might barely have winter at all. I know this because an oak tree told me so.

For four generations, my family has sought information about the severity of upcoming winter by consulting an oak which grows on our family farm near Forada, Minn., population 197. Decade after decade, the tree has never been wrong. What the tree is saying this year actually gives me goose bumps.

Let me explain how oak trees predict winter. Few acorns mean a mild winter. Lots of acorns mean a winter that is particularly severe. And, naturally, a moderate amount of acorns means something in the middle.

The theory is that squirrels propagate oak trees by burying nuts. So, when a harsh winter is coming, it is in the interest of the oak tree to give the squirrels extra food.

In the late 1970s, according to Hoff family lore, the tree successfully predicted a particularly severe winter that killed scores of people in the Midwest, raining down so many acorns you could barely see the grass beneath. That winter, 10-foot snowdrifts closed schools and forced men on snowmobiles to transport doctors and nurses to hospitals.

But, of course, it’s not like we count or weigh the acorns. This is always a rough eyeball estimate.

The idea that an oak tree can prognosticate winter is hardly unique to my family. This particular folk myth is probably hundreds of years old, along with the notion that you can predict winter by observing the thickness of the black middle segments on brown wooly bear caterpillars.

Of course, I don’t believe the caterpillar prediction method. When I was a child, my mother took me in our orchard to gather dozens of wooly bear caterpillars from the ground, carefully examining the black middle segments. We found tremendous variation, and even wooly bears that were entirely black or brown.

No, you can’t trust wooly bears. But you can trust oak trees. Right now, the Hoff family oak tree is saying, “Al Gore, you deserve that Nobel Prize. Warn the world about global warming.”

You see, our oak tree didn’t produce any acorns this year. No, not even one. You can walk barefoot upon the ground, run your fingers through the grass, shake the limbs of the tree with a pole, and not find a single acorn.

There are some runty little nubbins that seem like stillborn acorns, small as a peppercorn, useless. But there are no normal acorns at all. Not even one 80-year-old member of the family has seen anything like it.

I have checked other oak trees in other parts of Minnesota, but haven’t found acorns. Nobody else seems to notice or care.

Maybe growing up without indoor plumbing until the age of 12 has made me closer to nature. When I return to the family farm, idyllic childhood memories come rushing back of hunting squirrels, harvesting wild raspberries, catching snapping turtles with my bare hands to sell for their meat, and terrifying fishing resort tourists with weird noises in the night.

Of course, it’s not like we avoided the city. We loved the city. Cities have dumpsters overflowing with useful and valuable stuff. You can feed hogs, rabbits, chickens and a whole herd of goats just from the fruits and vegetables discarded from a single grocery store, and you can burn apple crates in a Franklin stove all winter.

My brother, who lives out in the sticks with no television or Internet, along with his wife and five children (one baby more on the way) swears the big city will kill me. He urges me to return to my rural roots before I get stabbed or shot by some random criminal.

But for me, the toughest part of the city isn’t crime, but constantly being around people who don’t have the sense to recycle, let alone notice what is happening to nature right under their noses.

Combining our family’s ancient prognostication methods with the modern Internet, I researched the issue and found the following:

Phyllis Barrow in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, is predicting a harsh, ominous winter based on an abundance of acorns.

The same is true in Philadelphia and Massachusetts.

In Britain, however, acorns are few in number. Beech trees are also producing less.

Acorns are so abundant in California that swimming pools are turning the same shade as Earl Grey tea.

However, an urban horticulturist with the University of California-Davis says acorn production occurs in natural cycles, and “a number of factors come into play including frosts, drought, spring rain and insects.”

I’m sure he’s right, but how does that prove oak trees can’t predict the weather? Until I see a study systematically measuring acorn output and comparing it to the severity of winter in that local area (which includes temperature, snowfall and duration) I remain absolutely convinced oak trees can predict the weather.

In fact, I’m so confident I have yet to obtain winter boots or a parka.

You might even say I’m going out on a limb.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]