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.
 

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue April 15, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: April 15 - 21, 2014

Credit Julie Kertesz / Flickr Creative Commons

The first seasons of the year are already gone now, bloodroot season, violet cress season, twinleaf season, snowdrop season, snow trillium season, so many more seasons. I've only watched a few of them, and I am wondering about what I've missed. They are fragments of a story, the meaning of which has always set me wondering.

I wonder about the meaning of the seasons of the landscape because I am wondering about my own seasons and what they mean. I watch them, and I am in suspense because I don't know exactly how they will turn out.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue April 8, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: April 8 - 14, 2014

Credit ~windy~ / Flickr Creative Commons

The effects of the steady retreat of the night and the increasing temperatures of middle spring are always cumulative. By the year’s one- hundredth day (that’s just two days from now), the resurrection of the landscape has a reached a point of no return.

All across the nation’s midsection, the blooming of silver maples and red maples merges with the blooming of the sugar maples and box elders. Honeysuckles are greening the roadsides, breaking the gray and dun of the winter undergrowth.

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Nature
6:20 am
Tue April 1, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: April 1 - 7, 2014

Credit Peter Roome / Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes, my religious background gets the better of me. I went to a seminary many decades ago, and I was filled with all kinds of liturgical practices. One of those practices that has stayed with me and keeps appearing in my brain is the genre of the litany. Now the way I learned litanies, the priest would call out the names of saints or different names for the Virgin Mary or Jesus, and the congregation would respond with “Pray for us.”

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Nature
6:30 am
Tue March 25, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: March 25 - 31, 2014

Credit Katerha / Flickr Creative Commons

March 5th was the first day of Lent, and on that date practicing Christians began a six and a half week vigil for Easter. The Lenten landscape always takes me back to my childhood and to the gray and cold days of waiting for the season to be over. It brings on reminiscence that not only crosses the boundaries of years and snow and the space between winter and spring but also the boundaries of my spiritual or religious upbringing and rebellion and reconciliation.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue March 18, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: March 18 - 24, 2014

Credit sussesimis / Flickr Creative Commons

All of natural history is in my favor today, March 18. If I compress my daybook notes from that day, going back to 1983, I can fabricate a quilt of events, webs of color and sound and warming winds to weave into the frame of a twenty-four hour span.

Then, a circadian shape appears, a four-dimensional psychic set, the radius of casual observation cutting through thirty years, cross-sectioning time – albeit with bias against winter – and I fill in the empty spaces of my imaginary structure of backyard natural history, requiring only this one day to make spring arrive.

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