Comparanda: Post-Modern Hepatoscopy (sort of)

Folks who have been following my antics online for the past couple of decades might recall that once upon a time on the Classics-l list I posted something about divining weather via pig spleens … seems the story is making another round:

It’s not the most traditional way of predicting the weather, but one Jamestown man boasts a near-perfect record stretching back decades.

Pig spleens and their height and width are how Norbert Schulz predicts the snowy season in North Dakota. This year, Schulz offered the same advice as years before: Buy a new shovel.

“It’s going to be real nice here for a while; then she’s going to turn real mean,” Schulz said sizing up the spleen in his rural butcher shop.

He said the weather should continue to stay nice through Thanksgiving and then make a turn for cold and snow in December and January before it warms up again.

As for why to measure with the spleen, Schulz, 83, said it’s something he learned from those before him.

“I got it from the old-timers. A lot of old-timers went by the pig spleen,” Schulz said.

His son, Steven, 54, who runs the family farm now, is next in line for pig spleen predictions.

The spleen’s function is to control the blood supply and help the immune system. Humans have a spleen shaped like a fist, while pigs have a long and narrow version.

“I just don’t know, but the pig knows,” he said.

Schulz has been using this method for decades, but only in the past 15 years or so has he been telling people about it. Now he said he receives phone calls from media outlets in Minnesota and Montana seeking his forecast.

“I don’t know why, but I hit it right all the time,” he said.

The number of spleens to predict from has dwindled over the years, but Schulz remains confident in his prediction.

“This I don’t think is going to be that mean. Sure, we’re going to get a bad shot, but then it’s going to level off,” he said in front of two hanging pig carcasses.

Last year, Schulz’s forecast of snow and cold starting in November was off as it was the second-warmest November on record, said Rob Kupec, meteorologist with WDAY.

“Last year was a rough year,” he said. “Everyone was a little off, including the climate prediction centers.”

But the cold and snow starting in December was spot on, said Sam Walker, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

“In general, December of last year was the 16th-wettest winter for Bismarck and the fourth-snowiest December at Bismarck airport,” Walker said. Only four days last December did not see snow.

Walker said he agrees with Schulz’s prediction for this year, with the initial cold burst.

“Actually, it sounds fairly close,” he said of Schulz’s prediction.

Kupec agrees because the spleens’ prediction resembles the La Nina pattern that will occur this winter.

“I think his forecast is an agreement with what the climate prediction center has been saying,” he said.

Schulz himself is confident of his prediction method but said no one can stay perfect forever.

“That’s the problem. I’m going to be wrong someday,” he said.

According to what I can locate semi-efficiently, the last time I mentioned this practice was back in 2001, when the Farmer’s Almanac had put online an article on the subject (which had previously come to my attention in the hard copy version). That article has since. That article has since vanished from the FA site, but it’s still lurking in the Wayback Machine. Here’s the bit:

STEP INTO Gus Wickstrom’s office in Tompkins, Saskatchewan. Gus, a man of Swedish descent who’s lived in this prairie province all of his 60-plus years, is a weather forecaster. He can predict upcoming conditions for the next six months, yet his technology requires no fancy equipment, no high-tech razzle-dazzle. All Gus needs is a barn and a farmhand or two standing by. . .because he predicts the weather by looking at a pig spleen.

Every six months or so, Gus slaughters a pig, and in the frugal way of farm families, he finds a way to use everything but the squeal, as they say. Gus closely scrutinizes the spleen, using a method he learned from his father and Harold Pearson, a neighbor.

Pig spleen chart Left: Here’s a drawing of a spleen from a pig Gus slaughtered in January of 1998, and his predictions for the next six months.

Gus’s method: Divide the spleen into six areas, each representing one month. The top of the spleen (closest to the pig’s head) shows the current month. The bottom indicates the end of the upcoming six-month period. Where the spleen thickens, a change in the weather is indicated, usually pointing to a cold spell. Where there’s a pronounced bulge, expect even more inclement weather. Gus can even read wind and rain into the variations in the spleen.

Seventy-two-year-old Joe King, in Wynyard, Saskatchewan, also learned pig-spleen weather predicting from his father. But Joe is adamant that the pig must be slaughtered in the fall or early winter; a spring spleen, says Joe, is not nearly as accurate. His method predicts only temperature, not precipitation. In the fall of 1997, Joe slaughtered his pig and pulled out a spleen that was even all the way through. This, he says, was one of the first indications that Saskatchewan would experience an even-tempered winter. Never mind that meteorologists were hysterical about the phenomenon called El Niño; or that onionskins and cornhusks were thick. Joe predicted a mild winter with just a few cold days, and his temperature predictions were right on the money.

I checked with a few animal scientists, whose reactions were of disbelief. After all, said the experts, a spleen is a vascular, ductless organ that stores blood, destroys worn-out red blood cells, forms lymphocytes, and so on. “A spleen,” I was reminded, “is a useful organ that has bodily functions. It has nothing to do with predicting the weather.”

I found myself defending this form of weather prophesying, even though I know it’s folklore. I too have farming in my blood. So I went to the one person I knew would have the answer — my father. “I recall,” Dad said, going back to his upbringing on a farm near Goodeve, Saskatchewan, “that our Polish neighbors also looked at the spleen of a pig to forecast the weather. And I know it’s something the Ukrainian families did as well.”

Aha, I thought to myself. It’s not just Gus and Joe — it’s in many cultures, probably more than I’ll ever know. Those who believe in pig-spleen weather prognosticating have seen it work, and that’s just the way it is.

The article was accompanied by a diagram reminscent of those accompanying the Piacenza liver:

All the Farmer’s Almanac stuff bears their copyright, of course. I wish they’d leave stuff like this up. The other thing I referenced lo those many years ago was the ARS HARUSPICINA haec est DISCIPLINA ETRUSCA page, which obviously still exists.

… all of which reminds me … I keep meaning to start including Nigidius Figulus’ brontoscopic prognostications in my ‘This Day in Ancient History’ feature … still looking for a complete copy online, though …

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