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Woe, the woolly bear goeth

October 01, 2012

Oh no, say it ain’t so. The Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack has announced that its celebrated woolly bear competition will go the way of the typewriter, Pontiac, soda can pull-tabs, Flip Wilson, false eyelashes and (if there is any justice in the world, after Nov. 6) Crossroads GPS.

The way of Burger Chef, wood paneling, bicycle banana seats, Ouija boards, afros, liner notes, corporal punishment, Green Stamps, Carnation Instant Breakfast and — everywhere except Washington County — raccoon tails affixed to automobile antennae.

The website I’m cribbing this junk from also lists blonde jokes and stiletto heels as among the nation’s bygone fads, although I pray this is not true.

But the woolly bear contest — I assumed that would always be with us. It had been around as long as I can remember; true, this is no longer a terribly impressive yardstick, but Hagerstown’s association with the caterpillar is so strong that we once had a woolly bear mascot for our minor league baseball team. It was either a woolly bear or a prison inmate; it was kind of hard to tell.

The school system used to sponsor the woolly bear contest, at which time we could count on well more than 1,000 entries. But now, apparently, the school system has better things to do, like teaching kids to appreciate the nutritional value of tangerines.

And without school sponsorship, the number of submissions dropped to three. Only three people cared enough about our woolly heritage to make an effort, which is kind of sad.

Although I grant you, the woolly bear contest was never “Dancing With the Stars.” No one paid a lot of attention to it anymore, but there was comfort in just knowing it was there, like the fire department, or Jay Leno.

And back in the days when predicting the weather was more of a crapshoot, there was a fair degree of intrigue over the woolly bears’ forecast. According to folklore, the wider the band of brown on the caterpillar, the milder the winter would be. I might have that backward, but you get the idea.

For the record, I’ve seen two woolly bears this fall. One was all brown; the other was all black. So, even our insects are not immune to the extreme polarization that is such a detriment to American society today. It also made me wonder if caterpillars have fact checkers. A black woolly bear in a mild winter would get four Pinocchios from The Washington Post.

But the whole caterpillar/moth paradigm is fascinating to me. The woolly bear is one of those rare examples where the caterpillar is more colorful than the moth, which is a rather drab brown with black spots. So the next time you hear one of those inspirational speakers using the caterpillar-becomes-butterfly self-development allegories, feel free to correct him.

But of greater concern to me was whether the caterpillar and the moth are the same being. Does the butterfly remember its roots as a lowly caterpillar, making it more likely to contribute to Save the Children? Does the moth share the same personality as the caterpillar?

I tend to think that if you’re a jerk as a caterpillar, you’re just as likely to be a jerk when you’re a moth.

But if this whole “woolly bear as weather forecaster” theme has played out, it might be a way for the Almanack to regenerate interest. Instead of a talent contest, make it a popularity contest.

Just like “Dancing With the Stars.”

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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