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Reading a pig’s spleen for a reliable long-term weather forecast

Jeff Woodward shows off a pig spleen at home in Regina on Thursday. His notes on the paper help him create forecasts.

Michael Bell/The Globe and Mail

There are pansies blooming in the backyard, dandelions on neighbourhood lawns and, with the Christmas break upon us, the Rideau Canal is open for … paddling.

These are strange times. Canadians, who usually talk endlessly about the weather, are struck dumb by what has been happening, and not happening, across vast stretches of this country.

Perhaps Jeff Woodward can explain. The 52-year-old Regina engineer works for Environment Canada – the official interpreter of weather – but his job is in water quality and he has nothing to do with official predictions.

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Unofficially, however, he is the pig-spleen reader to the nation.

It is a job – well, more hobby – that he inherited from his uncle, Gus Wickstrom, who farmed near Tompkins, Sask. Gus had learned the art from his father, Ernest, who learned it from his father, Victor Wickstrom, who in 1903 came from Sweden to homestead in the southwest corner of the prairie province. Mr. Woodward, who studied spleen reading when he worked summers on his uncle's farm, believes the Scandinavian art goes back in his family more than two centuries.

Gus Wickstrom never took himself or his strange art overly seriously – he even maintained that if you cooked and ate the spleens after "reading" them it would act as a "poor man's Viagra" – but he got lucky with a few of his predictions and local farmers began relying on him more than on the radio and television weather reports. Soon, publications such as Farmers' Almanac came calling and, wouldn't you know it, Gus Wickstrom was the most famous person in Tompkins by the time he passed away in 2007.

Mind you, his passing brought the population down to 172.

"Gus got a lot of mileage out of that," chuckles John Woodward, Jeff's father, who lives nearby in Gull Lake. Jeff Woodward is a bit more convinced than his father that Uncle Gus was onto something, although he himself sees the humour in spleen reading.

"There is so much we don't know about forecasting," he says. "There are things that animals do and other factors that can tell us things."

Weather forecasting and folklore have gone together long before "polar vortex" even became a phrase. Knees, crickets, red skies at night, the size of acorns and even the direction in which cattle tails point have long foretold what weather is coming in both the short and long term.

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The Wickstrom family would usually slaughter a hog each fall and spring, and from that the men claimed they could tell what the weather would be like over the next six months. They'd divide the long, slippery spleen – an organ that filters the blood and is important to the immune system – into six parts, one for each month. Where the spleen thickened would indicate cold months. A bulge might suggest even more inclement weather.

Gus Wickstrom took the family art to a whole new level. He would collect multiple pig spleens from a nearby Hutterite community and even ship in spleens from other parts of the country on the theory that the organs could forecast the weather only for the region in which the hog had been raised. He claimed to have become so expert at reading the spleens that he could see high winds and rainstorms looming.

When Gus passed on, his sister, Lynette Collier of Gull Lake, was determined the legacy would not be lost. In partnership with her nephew, Jeff, they formed an informal company, created a website ( and even went into marketing, selling T-shirts and sunglasses with the PigSpleen logo.

"There are a lot of quirky people out there who like quirky things," says Mr. Woodward.

A year ago, PigSpleen was featured on Tornado Hunters, a Regina-based Country Music Television series, and local television and radio stations are already calling to see when the 2016 predictions will be available. That forecast will be completed some time this coming week, but already Mr. Woodward has collected the spleens he will study and has stored them in his freezer.

He doesn't feel he competes with his employer and professes nothing but respect and admiration for Environment Canada meteorologists. At the same time, despite a not-so-accurate prediction a year ago for the first six months of 2015, he believes the overall record of spleen-reading has been largely accurate over the past several years of increasingly dramatic weather patterns.

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"We've seen more of that," he says. "One factor is the natural cycles of hot and cold years. But climate change is real. All this debate about whether it's real or not? It's over. It's very real."

Forecasting accurately in vast country is next to impossible, Mr. Woodward says. "It's frustrating to watch the forecasts on national television …. Every area is different. The geography is just too big. That's why the pig spleen works."

While he has yet to do the full dissection and reading of the spleens now stored in the freezer, Mr. Woodward has had a preliminary look at them and believes there are some long-term predictions to be made.

"I'm pretty much in accordance with Environment Canada," he says. "It's going to be a mild winter but likely really up and down, with cold snaps and lots of weird happenings … ."

Asked what, in the mind of an amateur weather forecaster, would be the most perfect day of the year, he doesn't even pause before answering.

"One day in January of February when it rains," he says. "And I predicted it would rain. A day when the pig spleen is right."

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