The Woolly Worm Principle

So what’s your prediction for winter this year? Are we in for a snowy season, subzero temperatures, lots of ice? Or will it be gray and rainy without much snow accumulation? We’d sure like to have a sign so we’d know how to prepare. Get more ice melt. Make sure our shovels are still in good working order.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale that woolly worms can predict what kind of winter we’re in for. And surely you know what woolly worms are—those fuzzy little caterpillars we see on roads and signposts and weary marigolds and mums in the fall. They are typically black or brown; often they are black on the ends with brown in the middle. It is the width of that brown band that is supposed to tell us something about the kind of winter that is coming our way. Even though that sounds like something you’d read in the Farmer’s Almanac—and in fact, there is an article in the current issue about woolly worms right now—there have actually been some scientific attempts to prove that the caterpillars really do have a talent for prognostication.

The first recorded scientific experiment was done in 1948, by Dr. C. H. Curran, who was then the curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was a big fan of woolly worms. He and his wife made a trip 40 miles north Bear Mountain State Park with the intention of collecting as many woolly worms as they could. Back at home, they would measure the width of woolly worms’ brown bands, and then overwinter them safely and humanely. Dr. Curran believed that after he had collected enough data, he would be able to show whether the bands were telling us something about the future. He continued his experiment for the next eight winters and came up with what he thought was a passable scientific postulate: The wider the brown band, the milder the winter.

Dr. Curran wasn’t the first person to try to understand more about what the intelligence of the universe says to us through our surroundings. In the Old Testament reading we heard, the psalmist says, “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” And also, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.” Nature continually shows us evidence of things working in right order. The day follows night. The seasons change, turn, and return again. Woolly worms have their part in this intelligent order—it’s possible that their markings do pour forth speech, giving us a sense of what’s coming, so we can prepare, feel secure, and be at peace. I think that would be just like our loving God, providing all we need and more, obviously evident in the tiniest, most overlookable details of our lives.

But I have to say, I wasn’t always so sure about the intelligence or capabilities of woolly worms. I have a specific memory, in fact, of a time when I was convinced that woolly worms wouldn’t be able to exist without me. During a fall break the year I was in Kindergarten, my mom had the ambitious idea of taking my brother and me camping at Raccoon Lake. We were city kids, growing up in an apartment, and my mom was a single mom who also had grown up in the city—I don’t know if she’d ever been camping in her life. But something possessed her that fall to find a tent, gather lots of blankets and pillows, collect enough food for a day and a half in the woods, and pack us into her 1962 pea-green Chevy Nova. And we headed west.

Somehow we found a campsite, and I remember my brother, who at 12 was all spindly arms and legs, struggling to put up spindly tent poles and get them covered with fabric the right way. Eventually the tent stood, even if it was a little lopsided. I remember being fascinated that there was a little tent flap for a window you could tie open or leave closed, and there was a door you could zip open and shut, which I did repeatedly until the rest of my family was thoroughly annoyed.

As novice campers, we learned many things the hard way. For example, we learned that nights in the fall are not only cool—they are also wet. Not long after sunset our blankets were damp and any place we touched the tent, our fingerprints left wet spots. We also learned after being startled awake in the middle of the night that raccoons are smart enough to open your Charles Chips cans and take all the food you brought for the next day. “No it is not a bear!” my brother hissed at me while I hid under a mountain of blankets.

The next day my brother wanted to go fishing, so mom rented a rowboat and the three of us paddled out to the middle of the lake (actually they paddled and I sat). I remember I was dressed like a blueberry—a blue long-sleeve shirt and blue stretchy pants. My mom liked to dress me in coordinated outfits, something she adopted herself in later years. My kids are the ones who commented many years later that grandma dressed like a piece of fruit—one day she was an apple, in a matching red top and pants; the next day she might be a plum, in purple.

But there on Raccoon Lake, my mom put a worm on my hook (I was squeamish and couldn’t look) and then she told me to cast my fishing line out into the lake. She made the motion, and I did my best. But because I was little, and because I stood up in the boat (which I didn’t know not to do), instead of casting my fishing hook somewhere into the actual water all around me, I caught the hook in the seat of my very own pants. Chaos ensued. I stood there, in distress, tottering in the boat, while my mother and brother said, “Calm down!” ten different ways and tried alternately to steady me and remove the fish hook before I sat or fell on it. It’s a wonder we didn’t all wind up in the lake. My mother swore she would never ever take me fishing again as long as she lived. It’s a promise she kept, I have to say.

And just in case we hadn’t had enough fun on this adventurous camping trip. I remember very vividly walking down a path later that afternoon and finding a beautiful white woolly worm. Now I think this is something that would have given even Dr. Curran pause. A white woolly worm! What kind of harbinger of divine presence was this?

I scooped him up in my hand and I marveled at his beauty and looked closely at his little accordion-like segments and his 13 pairs of tiny feet. After a few minutes of hearing me go on and on about the woolly worm, my mom suggested I put him on a nearby bush. We don’t have anywhere to keep him, she said. When I protested, she offered, Maybe he’ll miss his family.

This idea of giving up the woolly worm was just too much for me. I was certain that he needed me. He might not survive without me making him a little bed of grass and finding him some woolly worm food, whatever that might be. How could I just put him on a bush and walk away? Who would protect him and keep him safe? I sat down in the middle of the path and wailed.

Today, 50 years later, I can tell you that my vision has cleared a bit. Now I see that my upset that day was based on the idea that this little woolly worm I loved was alone and vulnerable and in danger without someone to protect him. But I didn’t yet understand, as young as I was, that God’s whole natural order—system after system built on love and support of life—completely surrounded and upheld the life of that tiny being, inside and out. At five, I couldn’t see it. And I didn’t know that the same force of light that put the stars in place and caused day to move into night was a force that loved and protected and watched over me too.

That woolly worm didn’t need me to help him survive because God had already created within him instincts that supported his life—natural impulses that told him where, when, how, and how much to eat; when it was time to find a sturdy log or rock for sleeping through the winter; how to spin a cocoon and transform into the next flight-ready stage of his life. Systems are in place for each and every growing thing—how to get nourishment, how to find protection, how to thrive, how to hibernate, how to connect, how to understand, how to grow.

When worries and challenging situations break into lives, the fear that washes over us would tell us we’re alone, we’re small, we don’t have the help we need to respond to the situation, whatever it is. But the truth is that we’re never alone; the truth is that we’re part of the biggest support network in existence, connected to the source of all life. We are intrinsically and indivisibly part of a system that can never fail us, as surely as night follows day.

As we heard from Paul in the New Testament, God has this all worked out—there is a system for everything. Peace is playing out around us, if we can have the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it. Rejoice, Paul tells the Philippians, in everything. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Our part, whatever comes our way, is to simply turn our thoughts toward God, to look for God’s system of support and care that is already in place and awaiting our noticing. That’s where our faith bridges the gap between the way thing look—which may be pretty dire—and the love and care God promises. If we’ll watch for it, that system will begin to shine through our upset or worry or fear.

Paul gives us that famous verse where he tells us how to calm our emotions and focus our thoughts on God: He says, think of God’s qualities—praiseworthy things, pleasing things, commendable things. When someone does something excellent, there is God. When people choose love over fear, trust over suspicion, sharing over personal gain, there is God. We will see evidence of this system—the deepest of systems in the created world—if we just watch for it in faith.

It’s comforting to realize that throughout our lives, we are moving naturally from grace to grace, from understanding to understanding. God designed the system that way, with everything we need in place for our support. And God’s light is the most reliable guide. May we remember, in times of challenge and in times of joy, that God’s greatest blessing and gift to us is God’s own constant unveiling and prevailing presence. May we have tender ears to recognize God’s beautiful speech, pouring fourth into our lives each day.


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  • OT: Psalm 19: 1-8
  • NT: Philippians 4: 4-9


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