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Old Farmer's Almanac Full of Folklore, Fillips and Forecasting

November 12, 1986|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Be prepared, it's going to come down in Torrance. Also in Pasadena and Reseda and the rest of the Southland.

Who should know better than Judson Hale? For 195 years, the Old Farmer's Almanac, of which he is editor, has been advising the nation on the weather it can expect.

"We are going out on a soggy limb and predicting twice as much rain as usual in Southern California in February," he said recently while in town to discuss the 1987 edition of the Almanac.

Very Wet Winter

If the people at the zoo are smart, they will begin lining up the animals by twos, because Hale flatly stated: "With the exception of January, the winter in general here should be very wet."

Weather forecasting, of course, is but one attraction in the 232 pages of the newest edition (Yankee Publishing Inc.: $2.25). Where else can you find an ad for chickens that lay colored eggs (save yourself the trouble at Easter)? Or an article on toothache remedies that includes eating the eyes of a vulture? Or advice on getting along with your pigs?

Perennial Best Seller

Year after year the yellow-covered book makes the best-seller lists, and nowadays sells more than 4 million copies, if for no other reason than that so many people's grandparents bought it.

And by the thousands the letters arrive at the publishing headquarters in Dublin, N. H. "One man wrote to ask when he should castrate his bull," Hale recalled. "I told him to do it when the bull is asleep."

Inasmuch as next year has a higher than average number of Fridays that fall on the 13th--in February, March and November--there is an article on triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13. It points out such things as the time the town fathers of French Lick Springs, Ind., decreed that all black cats in town should wear bells on those days.

"February in particular will be tricky because the 13th also coincides with a full moon," the editor said. "If this will bother you, on that day take all your socks with holes in them to the highest hill in your neighborhood, and burn them."

Folklore always has been part of the oldest continuously published periodical in America, and the new version is no exception, Exhibit A being its article on toothache remedies. Some come under the heading of "Simple Methods" (get out of bed left foot first), to "Simple but Disgusting Methods" (hold a live frog against the cheek), to "Better to Have the Toothache" (eat the head of an eel).

But always, when discussing the Almanac, the subject comes back to occurrences of nature.

"I believe in the signs of nature," the 53-year-old Hale said. "She puts longer hair on horses well before it gets cold, and I look for that. She sends the birds south before it gets cold.

"If a squirrel is gathering more nuts this fall than last, you can expect a heavy and cold winter. This comparison only works, however, if you follow the same one. And even then, you may be running into a demented squirrel.

"Birds," he continued, "will get into a nest before a storm because the air gets denser and more difficult to fly in. Nature has programmed storm sensitivity into birds."

Of interest to Southlanders is the relationship of birds to quakes. "They know about earthquakes," Hale maintained. "If you trot outside and don't see any birds, you had better look for something to hold onto. They leave the area. I have heard of instances where they leave six or seven hours in advance of a big one."

Weather Predictions

For decades the Almanac derived its weather predictions from a formula devised by its former editor of 52 years, Robert B. Thomas, and every bit as secret as the one for Coca-Cola.

"It was based on weather cycles," Hale disclosed. "We still refer to it for buttressing, but we mainly rely on Richard Head, who joined our staff in 1969 after being chief scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"We do our forecasting now by the sun, which Head believes is related to Thomas' weather cycles. We feel that radiant energy from the sun fluctuates. And we feel that there is cause and effect, and a pattern that can be predicted." The Almanac claims 80% accuracy on its forecasts.

Old-Time Respect

Such has been the respect for the Almanac's monthly calendars down through the years that in 1857 an attorney named Abraham Lincoln referred to the publication during a trial.

"Lincoln's client was accused of hitting a man with a slingshot by the light of the moon," Hale said. "The man who would later be President pointed out to the jury the fact that the Almanac showed a mention next to the Aug. 29 in question: 'Moon runs low.' The conclusion was that such an attack would have been impossible in the limited light, and the defendant was acquitted."

Another man who would eventually become President, Jimmy Carter, used to run ads for fish worms, the editor said.

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