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.

Greg Wagoner / Flickr Creative Commons

The Raspberry Moon wanes throughout the week ahead, reaching perigee (its position closest to Earth) on July 1 and  becoming the new Coneflower Moon on July 4.

As the Coneflower Moon waxes and wanes through July, it brings on the black-eyed Susans, gray-headed coneflowers, showy coneflowers, and the white, purple and red coneflowers.  When their blossoms disappear, early fall will be fast approaching.

Ryan Dingman / Flickr Creative Commons

Summer solstice is history  now, and on June 23rd, the sun begins its six-month descent to winter solstice. Middle summer typically begins this week along the 40th Parallel, and it lasts until the Dog Days weaken in the first of the late summer high-pressure systems, about August 10. In these six to seven weeks, approximately an hour is lost from the day's length and the year turns toward autumn. 

raspberries
Vanessa Hernandez / Flickr Creative Commons

Having entered its second quarter on June 12, the gibbous Raspberry Moon waxes throughout the week ahead, reaching apogee (its position farthest from Earth) and becoming totally full at 6:02 a.m. on June 20. Summer solstice takes place on the same day, at 6:34 p.m.

Now is high tide in the year, and the berries grow fat and sweet beneath the glowing moon. “Taste the sugar berry sugar purple berry,” I once wrote under the influence of a little mulberry wine, “sugar wild hot sugar sunning sugar berry, sugar in the sun.”

Dicoplio Family / Flickr Creative Commons

Events in nature generally occur in a fixed sequence, based on precipitation, the declination of the sun, and the effects of warm or cold days.

And, usually, if something happens once, it will happen again.

Ezio Melotti / Flickr Creative Commons

A few afternoons ago I was sitting in the back yard enjoying the mild weather and the sun. By chance, I happened to look up into the tall locust tree at the edge of my property.

Jim Mullhaupt / Flickr Creative Commons

The Mulberry Moon wanes throughout the week, coming into its final quarter at 10:29 p.m. on May 29. Rising near midnight, setting in the late morning to early afternoon, the moon will be overhead before sunrise.

As the moon comes up, the Milky Way fills the eastern half of the sky, running from the north and “Z” shaped Cassiopeia, through Cygnus the Swan, then through Aquila and finally to Scutum and Sagittarius deep in the southeast.

Marcia Cirillo / Flickr Creative Commons

The Mulberry Moon waxes through its second quarter this week, becoming completely full on the 22nd of May, lying overhead and gibbous throughout the night.

Sweetening both white and red mulberries, the moon makes locust and buckeye flowers open and then fall as the high canopy slowly closes in.

Cedar waxwings migrate north as the flowers collapse. In warm and humid evenings, giant June bugs come to your porch light, and the first firefly glows in the grass.

Holly Sparkman / Flickr Creative Commons

I have been thinking that if every aspect of the landscape is predetermined by the spin of the Earth and biological clocks, how similar my own changes and progressions must be, all attached to the sun and the moon, to heat and cold, prearranged as if there were a cosmic map organic to my brain, as though, like some migrating species, I simply did what I needed to do in order to discover and fulfill my purpose.

Andrea Pullicino / Flickr Creative Commons

On a recent trip to the Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, I saw a small figurine: a prone girl of raku-fired ceramic, a glass replica of her rising from her waist.

The work was called “While You Were Sleeping,” and it was created by Christina Bothwell, a Pennsylvania sculptor. The artist’s statement said that the sculpture was “to make visible the idea that we are souls housed in skin bodies.” The medium of glass, stated the artist, “holds light in its mass, just as the spirit is held in the physical body.”

HUS0 / Flickr Creative Commons

Rick came over around noon, excited to find tiny praying mantises emerging out from their nest-like ootheca. The insects were maybe a fourth to three-eighths of an inch long and were scrambling helter skelter into the sun.

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