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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

September 29, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 120




Pat Morrison Mating moose, woolly bears, and the kingdom

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

Farmers and those who live in rural and still-unspoiled places are much better than most "city folks" at knowing when to plant or dig up what, what the effect of the weather will be on the crop, and why the animals and insects behave as they do. There's a unique wisdom born of closeness to the earth. Humor, too, that makes us humans more inclined to take ourselves less seriously when we get "up close and personal" to the greatness of creation around us.

Take folks in Alaska, for example. Earlier this month the state's Department of Fish and Game issued a warning to human residents of the state. According to an Associated Press story, the department urged Alaskans to take down their backyard hammocks, clotheslines, and kids' swings. This is not yet another example of Homeland Security run amuck (although there is some running involved). The warning was issued because this is Moose Mating Season in Alaska.

Apparently an amorous big guy (technically an Alces alces), in pursuit of his significant other, literally stops at nothing -- even backyard hammocks and swing sets -- in his quest for true love. Like most romance, there's a tragic element in it all. More than one moosine Romeo, galloping at full throttle across a lawn after his Juliet, has gotten his antlers caught in humans' backyard "stuff." Some have gotten so entangled they've had to be tranquillized by the wildlife service in order to be cut free. Meanwhile, a moose so caught up through romantic pursuit can get pretty beat up by a jilted competitor who happens to come rampaging through. Not a pretty sight.

Now that's something a Manhattan high-rise dweller doesn't ever have to worry about. ("Hey Mona, com'ere. There's a moose on the fire escape.") And most Ohioans don't have to fret about moose on the make and on the move either.

Ohioans, however, do have a great knack for creating a festival around just about any marine or wildlife creature. New Year's Eve in Times Square pales in comparison to its competitor, The Great Walleye Drop in Port Clinton. Hundreds bundle in parkas each year at the Lake Erie fishing hamlet to watch 20-foot fiberglass "Wally the Walleye" slide to terra firma from his aerial fishing line at the stroke of midnight. Then there's the annual March 15 celebration of the buzzards' return to Hinckley, a sign of spring's imminent arrival every bit as anticipated and picturesque for Ohioans as the return of Capistrano's famed swallows.

My favorite Ohio celebration, however, is the annual Woolly Bear Festival in Vermillion, which happens this weekend. The largest one-day festival in the state, it includes caterpillar races and the Official Winter Weather prediction, based on expert analysis of the woolly bear contestants.

I first learned about "woolly bears" and their legendary prognostication powers when I moved to Ohio in 1995. The caterpillars of the Leopard and Isabella tiger moths got the "bear" moniker from their dark black "fur" striped with a reddish-brown midsection, and because they are often seen lumbering across country roads in the fall. According to folklore, the amount of black fuzz on the caterpillar in autumn predicts how long, cold and snowy winter will be. In layman's terms, lots of black equals lots of snow. If the brown tummy band is wide, winter will be mild. If the front end is dark, winter will start out severe; if the rear is dark, the end of winter will be cold. For generations, Ohioans have been getting their overcoats out of mothballs based on the woolly bears' winter predictions.

Insect specialists, of course, have bah-humbugged the bugs' weather-forecasting abilities. An entomologist with Kansas State University's Research and Extension division -- Kansas is home to woolly bears too -- says their "woolliness" simply reflects the caterpillars' particular species or how old they are and has nothing to do with what winter will be like. But don't try telling that to dyed-in-the-wool woolly bear devotees, who will swear to the critters' accuracy, or to Vermillion's Woolly Bear Festival celebrants.

Smart people, it seems, know how to read nature's messages, whether coded in mating moose or fuzzy caterpillars, and act accordingly. Jesus chided some of his listeners for being able to interpret nature's signs of changing weather but their inability to read "the signs of the times," the spiritual bud-blooming or leaf-turning signals that God's kingdom is at hand.

In a world spinning out of control with war and consumerism, in a church groaning for the long-awaited birth of true reform and renewal, maybe there's a message for us from unlikely mentors, woolly bears and mating moose: Slow down and observe carefully, in order to live fully now. Wisely prepare for what's ahead. And don't get entangled in what detours you from your heart's deep desire.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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