Old-School Weather and Snow Forecasting in the Grand Massif
By Barbara Allan
What do ant mounds, gentian flowers, spiders, mice, and onions have in common? They can help predict the winter season!
According to les anciens (elders) ‘everything in nature speaks to us of the weather, we simply must listen.’
Before meteorologists had sophisticated technology and long before our favourite weather apps existed, forecasts were based solely on people’s observations of the natural world around them. Over time, these signs, and people’s experiences of nature were translated into rhyme, les dictons in French. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them…
Si les fourmilières sont hautes au début de l’automne, l’hiver sera rude et long.
Translated, tall ant mounds in early autumn signify a long, hard winter to come.
Autumn is the perfect time of year for a stroll along the Giffre river, or through the forests above Samoëns. Breathe the crisp mountain air, be inspired by stunning colours, but be sure to also take note of what the ants have been up to. The bigger their house, the deeper the snow!
Another saying suggests it’s the height of the yellow gentian flower that predicts the depth of snow…
Gentiane au plus haut, prépare ton swallow.’
Here, the ‘swallow’ is a snowboard made especially for riding deep powder. But skiers, if you notice tall gentians flowers too, then prepare your fat skis!
As a keen gardener, I like the idea of predicting the rigours of winter based on how hard it is to peel home-grown garlic, or how thick onion skins grow…
Si la peau de l’oignon est épaisse ou les gousses d’ail sont difficiles à peler, l’hiver sera rigoureux.
Perhaps folkloric fancy, les dictons could be based in scientific reality. Take animals for example. Just like us, animals change their behaviour depending on the weather. Unlike most of us however, animals are far more sensitive to changes in atmospheric conditions, like humidity levels and barometric pressure. This explains why they often know ahead of time what weather is to come.
Ever noticed how magpies, finches or robins will take shelter near your house just before a dump of snow? Or that spiders are more prevalent inside? Les anciens say that spiders are excellent barometers, taking refuge inside only when storms and cold snaps are near. Don’t squish them! Especially if you find them in your alpine chalet. The habits of rodents are another thing to watch. Squirrels are said to gather acorns early to fortify against a hard winter, and mice will eat ravenously into your home!
If you were lucky enough to visit the Giffre valley this summer you may have heard the locals talking about the mouse problem this year. It’s true, the valley was overrun! But rather than dampening spirits, the rampaging rodents were often an exciting topic of conversation. I hear you ask how anyone can find such a thing exciting, well I’ll tell you… Lots of mice means lots of snow! At least many of the locals think so, including our friend Graham from Sougey.
‘I think it's going to be a good snow season … the signs are good with lots of wasps this summer, and lots of mice, and the recent early snow we've had at about 1700 metres.’
Animals and plants aren’t the only things people use to predict the weather. The cycle of the moon is also of great importance. 86-year-old Samoëns local, Pierre Castor, says to pay attention to the weather on the fifth and sixth days after a Full or New moon. Apparently if the weather is the same both days, that’s how it will remain until the next lunar cycle. You know what that means folks? Those of us who believe in the power of a snow-dance should get our groove on the evening of the fourth day!
Pierre also shared many old sayings relating to the importance of the month of November when predicting the winter season…
S’il y a encore des feuilles sur les Arbres passé le 11 novembre… l’hiver sera long et froid.
If the trees haven’t shed all their leaves by the 11th November, winter will be long and cold.
Ne laissez pas passer le jour de Toussaint sans cueillir une feuille de hêtre... Si elle est craquante et sèche, l’hiver sera clément, en revanche, si elle est humide et molle, l’hiver sera rude et long.
Be sure to pick a beech leaf before All Saints Day (1st of November), If it’s crisp and dry, the winter will be mild, but if it is wet and soft, the winter will be rough and long.
Autant d’heures de soleil le jour de la Toussaint, autant de semaines à souffler dans les mains.
As number of hours of sunshine on All Saints Day is the number of weeks spent blowing on cold hands.
Neige de Saint André (30 novembre) peut 100 jours durer.
Snow on Saint Andrew’s Day (30th of November) can last 100 more.
This last one must be my all-time favourite of les anciens dictons. Check out this long-term weather forecast and you’ll see why… Snow at the end of November!
Here’s hoping for those 100 days more ❄️ ❄️