Poor Will's Almanack

Tuesdays during Morning Edition

Bill Felker’s Poor Will’s Almanack currently appears in fifteen regional and national publications including the Yellow Springs News.

Bill Felker on how the almanack began:

The Author of the following Letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of ”parochial history”....
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne

Poor Will’s Almanack, which I feel is something akin to what Gilbert White would consider “parochial history,” began in 1972 with the gift of a barometer. My wife, Jean, gave the instrument to me when I was succumbing
to graduate school stress in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it became not only an escape from intense academic work, but the first step on the road to a different kind of awareness about the world.

From the start, I was never content just to watch the barometric needle; I had to record its movement, then graph it. I was fascinated by the alchemy of the charts that turned rain and sun into visible patterns, symbols like notes on a sheet of music, or words on a page.

From my graphs of barometric pressure, I discovered that the number of cold fronts each month is more or less consistent, and that the earth breathes at an average rate of about once every three to five days in the winter, and once each six to eight days at the peak of summer.

A short apprenticeship told me when important changes would occur and what kind of weather would take place on most any day. That information was expressed in the language of odds and percentages, and it was surprisingly accurate. Taking into consideration the consistency of certain patterns in the past, I could make fairly successful predictions about the likelihood of the repetition of such paradigms in the future. As Yeats says, the seasons "have their fixed returns,” and I found points all along the course of the year which appeared
to be fixed moments for change. The pulse of the world was steadier than I had ever imagined.

My graphs also allowed me to see the special properties of each season.  August's barometric configurations, for example, are slow and gentle like low, rolling hills. Heat waves show up as plateaus. Thunderstorms are sharp, shallow troughs in the gentle waves of the atmospheric landscape. Autumn arrives like the sudden appearance of a pyramid on a broad plain. By the end of September, the fronts are stronger; the high-pressure peaks become taller; the lows are deeper, with almost every valley bringing rain. By December, the systems loom on the horizon of the graph like a range of mountains with violent extremes of altitude, sometimes snowcapped, almost always imposing and sliced by canyons of wind.

From watching the weather, it was an easy step to watching wildflowers.  Identifying plants, I saw that flowers were natural allies of my graphs, and that they were parallel measures of the seasons and the passage of time. I kept a list of when each wildflower blossomed and saw how each one consistently opened around a specific day, and that even though a cold year could set blooming back up to two weeks, and unusual warmth accelerate it, average dates were quite useful in establishing sequence of bloom which always showed me exactly where  I was in the progress of the year.

In the summer of 1978, Jean and I took the family to Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small town just beyond the eastern edge of the Dayton suburbs. We bought a house and planned to stay. I began to write a nature almanac for the local newspaper. To my weather and wildflower notes I added daily sunrise and sunset times, moonrise and moonset, average and record temperatures, comments on foliage changes, bird migration dates, farm and gardening cycles, and the rotation of the stars.

The more I learned around Yellow Springs, the more I found applicable to the world beyond the village limits. The microclimate in which I immersed myself gradually became a key to the extended environment; the part unlocked the whole. My Yellow Springs gnomon that measured the movement of the sun along the ecliptic also measured my relationship to every other place on earth.  My occasional trips turned into exercises in the measurement of variations in the landscape. When I drove 500 miles northwest, I not only entered a different space, but often a separate season, and I could mark the differences in degrees of flowers, insects, trees, and the development of the field crops. The most exciting trips were taken south in March; I could travel from early spring into middle spring and finally into late spring and summer along the Gulf Coast.

My engagement with the natural world, which began as an escape from academia, finally turned into a way of getting private bearings, and of finding a sense of values. It was a process of spiritual as well as physical reorientation.  The extremes of that process often puzzled me as well as my family and my newspaper readers. Why I felt compelled to go well beyond a barometric notebook and end up describing the average weather and the state of nature on each day of the Yellow Springs year I have not the slightest idea. My existential search for home must have required it of me, and so, in that sense, all the historical statements in this collection of notes are the fruit of a strong need to define, in maybe excessive detail, where I am and what happens around me.

Poor Will's Almanack is also available as a podcast.
 

Kristy Johnson / Flickr Creative Commons

The end of middle spring calls out bumblebees and carpenter bees all along the 40th Parallel. American toads keep on mating, and tadpoles already swim in the backwaters. Mosquitoes bite, and new hummingbird moths come out to sip the annual mass flowering of dandelions.

Liz West / Flickr Creative Commons

In the time of autumn recollection, the absence of spring and summer sometimes leads to melancholy, a nostalgia for things that have disappeared. Decay is a reminder of the brevity of fulfillment. Past time may seem like betrayal or like illusion. The the falling of fruit and foliage seems to be a terminal condition that only leads to a cold conclusion void of color.

A. Birkan ÇAĞHAN / Flickr Creative Commons

In a cold spring, when the daytime offers few markers for the new season, the stars of midnight continue to tell the time of year. At the hinge between morning and night, winter’s Orion, followed by Sirius, the Dog Star, are setting in the west, taking away the cruelest time of winter. Behind them, Gemini and Cancer promise the blossoms of fruit trees.

Trina Alexander / Flickr Creative Commons

Throughout the eastern half of the United States, middle spring often arrives with storms, and I remember a cruel evening of hard wind and snow on the raw border between March and April.

Just before sunset, the sky turned black and the storm hummed in the bamboo outside my window. I had brought in enough logs for the wood stove that afternoon, and the fire was hearty and radiant. I hunkered down.

Andrew Fogg / Flickr Creative Commons

Poor Will’s Almanack for the very edge of middle spring, in the second week of the Cabbage White Butterfly Moon, the first full week of the sun in Aries, the seventeenth week of the new year in nature.

Martin LeBar / Flickr Creative Commons

The first stage in the progress of spring brings the sighting of “firsts”: first bluebird, first robin, red-winged blackbird, first crocus, first daffodil, first tulip and so forth.

Now with as middle spring approaches, quantity matters as much as novelty.

Firsts are easy now: first hepatica, first violet cress, first Dutchman’s breeches, first twinleaf, first spring beauty, first lungwort, first bluebell, first cabbage white butterfly.

And the discovery of firsts lasts as long as a person might look or listen.

Julie Falk / Flickr Creative Commons

More and more things are happening, the plot of the story of March becoming more and more apparent as the month comes toward its climax.

Bright aconites and snowdrops and snow crocus have reached full bloom. Hyacinths and daffodils and tulips and pushkinia are inching up, sometimes budding, sometimes opening in the sun.

Martin Kenny / Flickr Creative Commons

Bluebell growing season begins as its first dusky foliage emerges from the hillsides. Daffodil, chickweed, purple deadnettle, and dandelion blooming times unfold slowly just as clumps of nettles, shepherd’s purse, cress, clover and lamb’s quarters reach the spring tipping point and spill across the waysides, fields and gardens.

Mitch Groff / Flickr Creative Commons

When one thing happens, something else is always happening, too. The flowering of snowdrops and early crocus and aconites bears witness to the blossoming of silver maples and the red maples along city streets, the blooming of weedy henbit in the garden, the increasing flow of maple sap, the full emergence of pussy willows, the appearance of honeybees and carpenter bees in search of the new pollen, the full bloom of snow trillium along the rivers, the final bloom of skunk cabbage in the wetlands, the time for killdeer and woodcocks and red-winged blackbirds to arrive from the South.

WYSO listeners will recognize the calm, reflective voice of Bill Felker. Bill's meditations upon nature and the changing seasons are a long-time staple on the WYSO airwaves and in publications across America. Bill recently published his latest "Poor Will's Almanack 2015." I always enjoy my interviews with Bill because I can usually surprise him with a question or a topic that he probably wasn't expecting. In this interview we discussed Bill's SAD table, a new feature in this latest edition of a series that he has been producing for many years.

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