THERE'S a storm coming. I can feel it in my throbbing temples and in the oppressive, muggy heat that's been building all day. I also know from this morning's radio forecast that thundery showers are expected by nightfall but having just read a book that claims humans don't need professional meteorologists to predict the weather, I have switched off all my gadgets and determined to study the world around me for clues as to when the storm will break.

This, after all, is what our ancestors did. “In the past,” writes Peter Wohlleben in The Weather Detective, “it was vital that everyone could recognise and interpret these signs. People were dependent on nature and intimately familiar with it.”

So highly attuned were they to nature's sights, scents and sounds that in the centuries before barometers, clocks and digital calendars, humans used those signals not only to predict the weather but to establish the time of day and season of the year.

These days, most of the UK population is urban and even here in Scotland, where 98 per cent of the landmass is rural, only 20 per cent of us live in the countryside. But if we think our ancient bond with the natural world no longer matters we are dangerously deluded, argues Wohlleben, a German forester whose last book, The Hidden Life Of Trees, was an international bestseller. “In the face of climate change and damage to the environment,” he argues, “it is more urgent than ever that we recognise and understand the signs of nature. Only then will we appreciate what we stand to lose.”

With those ominous words ringing in my ears, I step out through my front door and prepare to tune in to those elemental messages, but instead find myself negotiating a sensory assault course of traffic noise, reeking dustbins and ugly building sites.

Once inside the fecund haven of my nearest park, however, I sit on the grass and look heavenwards as our great, great, great grandparents would routinely have done before deciding whether this was a good day to sow their oats or bring in the sheep, cast their nets or batten down the hatches. Their existential dread of spoiled harvests and shipwreck was written into folklore and Met Office research conducted last summer suggests 75 per cent of us still set store by those old proverbs, particularly the one about a red sky at night foretelling shepherd's (or sailor's) delight, which 70 per cent of us believe. And apparently we are not far wrong, since that nocturnal rosy glow is caused by the high pressure associated with good weather. “High pressure traps dust and dirt in the air, which scatters blue light, only leaving the red remaining – hence the reddish appearance of the sky,” explains the Met Office website.

A red sky in the morning, meanwhile, actually does act as a reliable shepherd's (or sailor's) warning since, as Wohlleben explains, “the sun rises in the east, where the sky is clear, and shines onto the clouds gathering in the west, which will rapidly spread and fill the sky”.

Useful as it may be, that old adage is no help to me now in the middle of a sultry afternoon so I decide to examine the clouds themselves, which people seem always to have known were linked to weather even if they didn't understand the scientific reasons. In Greek mythology, clouds were nymphs who gathered river water in cloudy pitchers before ascending to the sky where they floated around in billowing robes, emptying the contents over the earth. Ancient Hindu tradition construed clouds as heavenly white elephants, which used their trunks to shower rainwater over the land below. And for the Native American Navajo people, clouds were formed by the flapping wings of a great white swan.

As we now know, of course, the more prosaic explanation is that low pressure causes water vapour to condense into droplets or ice crystals. Thinner cloud lets more light through and so appears white. “If you see tall, towering clouds on the horizon, it means rain (or snow) is likely soon,” writes Wohlleben. “If they seem to puff out at the top, or form an anvil shape (where the cloud tower is being pulled apart at the top), then a thunderstorm is on the way.”

Right now, there is no discernable shape to the cloud, which is lightish grey but so widely dispersed across the sky that although I can hear the drone of an aircraft overhead, I can't see it and nor can I tell whether it has left one of those lingering condensation trails which Wohlleben says act as “early harbingers, of bad weather” since if they don't dissolve, “that means humidity is on its way, and with it a low-pressure area. The sky will soon cloud over”.

Clearly, we have passed that milepost so I lower my gaze and look around for earthly omens. With no cattle around, I can't test the old trope about cows lying down before a cloudburst (which is nonsense anyway, according to the Met Office, even if 61 per cent of us believe in it), so I look for botanical soothsayers in the form of daisies. “One glance at the white and yellow flowers is enough to tell if you should hang your laundry out,” writes Wohlleben. “If rain is on the way, or a storm, the petals close up. Some also droop downwards, to avoid letting a single drop in.”

Evidently, the daisies in this Glasgow park are rebellious little flowers, for despite the fact that the sky has darkened and I can actually hear the rumble of distant thunder, their petals are defiantly open. So I search instead for some dandelions, having heard that the seeding heads shut up like umbrellas when bad weather is approaching. And Eureka! I find a clump of elderly dandelions with one fully formed clock and three of those feathery heads, all tightly furled like little green and white brollies.

And now I close my eyes and listen for the sound of silence. We all know calm is supposed to precede a storm, and it's generally thought that birds go quiet beforehand. And if evidence for this is hard to come by, they are known to be extremely sensitive to small changes in atmospheric pressure and to time their migratory flights accordingly. A 2014 study by the University of California found that golden-winged warblers took a substantial detour from their usual migration route to avoid ferocious tornadoes which killed 35 people.

Our feathered friends feature prominently in weather lore. “Hawks flying high means a clear sky,” runs the old rhyme. “When they fly low, prepare for a blow.” Seabirds flying inland and solo-flying crows are also supposed to presage foul weather, while birds singing in the rain reputedly do so before a change for the better.

More pertinently for today's purposes, low-flying swallows are meant to warn us that storms are approaching but Wohlleben casts doubt on this theory, arguing that “if anything, it's the other way around: as the wind picks up before a storm, swallows are likely to fly higher than usual. The saying 'when swallows fly high, the weather will be dry' could well lead you astray”.

He says chaffinches are better barometers, apparently modifying their song when the weather is set to turn. When the sun is shining, he writes,“the males usually trill a melody that sounds a little like 'chi-chip-chirichirichiri-chip-cheweeoo'. If storm clouds loom or rain falls, however, he switches to a monosyllabic 'raaatch'.”

Sadly, I couldn't tell a chaffinch's cry from a sparrow's, which is probably symptomatic of how detached I am from the natural signals with which my great-great-great-etc-grandmother would have been intimately familiar. The Weather Detective contains fascinating, if depressing, insights into the way our urban lifestyles are shattering our ties with nature – not least through light pollution, which is obliterating the nocturnal star-shows that once guided our ancestors' footsteps. Meanwhile, moths, which mistake artificial lights for the moon by which they orientate their flight paths, find themselves hopelessly circumnavigating those electrical orbs until they die of exhaustion. (Bats, apparently, have learned to profit from their confusion, by patrolling street lights on warm summer nights, where they feast on disorientated moths.)

Here in the park, it's still broad daylight and in fact, the clouds have lightened to a greyish white. The thunder appears to have passed overhead and only a few splashes of rain have fallen. Perhaps those daisies were better informed than the dandelions after all. And indeed even my troubled bones – or rather, the headache that's been nagging since morning – has miraculously cleared with the storm clouds.

For as Wohlleben confirms, your granny is not necessarily havering about the rheumatic twinges or other physical symptoms that supposedly presage a change in the weather, since humans – like other animals – are hardwired to detect the shifts in air pressure that determine meteorological variations. Why some people are more sensitive than others to their inbuilt barometer is unclear, though Wohlleben surmises that it could be linked to changes in the conductivity of our cell membranes, which can become more sensitive as a result of certain medical conditions.

Whatever the cause, in the days before central heating and ready-meals, paying attention to those physiological indicators, and to their surroundings, would have been second nature to our ancestors.

Today, we are increasingly alienated from the natural world. In 2005, American author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the harm we are doing to our children by robbing them of the opportunity to run, play and climb trees in the great outdoors. Even the language of childhood is changing. In 2015, prominent authors such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo expressed “profound alarm” at the Oxford University Press's decision to drop words such as “buttercup” and “minnows” from its children's dictionaries, in favour of terms such as “broadband” and “cut-and-paste”.

So does Wohlleben want us to throw away our smartphones? Apparently not. “I'm not advocating a return to our roots or a rejection of modern life,” he insists. “What I'm really interested in is reclaiming our sensitivity to nature and reawakening our powers of observation. When we use our senses at full capacity, we access the wealth of thrilling and calming experiences waiting for us just outside our back doors, in nature and in our gardens.” He urges us to train our sense of hearing, by attending to nature's noises. “Find out what your own favourite garden sound is: perhaps it's the song of a blackbird at dusk, the rustle of a hedgehog under a hedge or the brisk buzz of a bumblebee in the shrubs. There are so many amazing things to hear out there beyond the everyday tumult of cars and planes.”

Here in this city park, the rumble of cars and planes remains audible through the trees but so does the chirrup of birds (which may or may not be chaffinches) and the rustle of something that just might be a hedgehog.

The storm clouds, meanwhile, have all but disappeared. And I'm sure I can smell sunshine.

The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature's Signs by Peter Wohlleben is published by Rider, £12.99


Does a bumper summer crop of nuts, berries and fruits mean a hard winter is coming? Not necessarily. “Sadly, we can't predict the future from a bountiful crop,” writes Peter Wohlleben. “After all, the fruit buds are produced the previous summer. If it indicates anything, an abundance of acorns and beechnuts in the forests suggests … a dry summer the previous year.”

Can snowmen sense the coming of spring? Astonishingly, yes … though only in the sense that if you can manage to build one, it means the snow itself is of the right consistency to be rolled into balls. And since this happens when temperatures are comparatively mild, it could mean that a long, hard spell is coming to an end.

Do pine cones act as weather stations? Sort of. “They open up in sunny, dry weather making a big puffy cone, while in rainy weather they close up making the cone smaller and narrower,” explains Wohlleben. “However, since the change lags behind the weather … they are completely useless as a forecasting instrument.”


You can set your watch by flowers, many of which open at different times of day. “Pumpkins and courgettes kick things off first by opening their flowers at 5 o'clock in the morning,” writes Peter Wohlleben in The Weather Detective. “From 8am the marigolds spread out their petals and the daisies follow at 9.”

Meanwhile, birdsong can help tell us the early morning time but only if your ears are attuned to the melodies of particular birds, since the various species vary their peak dawn chorus moment, in order to ensure their territorial and mating calls aren't drowned out by others.

On the RSPB's website, Jenny Shelton offers this evocative chronology of the UK's dawn chorus, which she says peaks in the half-hour before and after sunrise: “Robins, blackbirds and song thrushes begin, then the wrens and warblers join in. Finally, come the chaffinches, goldfinches and sparrows. It's thought that, because this last group have smaller eyes, they need more light to find food.”


On Midsummer's Day, June 21, the sun is at its peak in the sky. “The reason why summer only truly begins after this peak,” writes Peter Wohlleben, “is that the sun needs several weeks to heat up the air. This means the temperature increase lags a little behind the sun's height in the sky, and the air temperature only reaches its maximum later in the season when the days are already getting shorter again.”