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.
 

blmiers2 / Flickr Creative Commons

“We live in memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope…into our future,” states the philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno.

Of course, once you have uncovered the span the year's cycle, you can see the past and tell the future. Stasis and passage become inseparable. Awareness of landmarks in the seasons encompasses not only what was but what still may be.

Randi Hausken / Flickr Creative Commons

The shrinking Sandhill Crane Moon wanes throughout the week darkening the longest nights of the year, and continuing to call the cranes to the south, until on the 21st it becomes the Marauding Mouse Moon, the first day of the worst time of rodents in kitchens and basements and attics as those creatures flee from the cold.

That moon becomes new at 8:36 in the evening of the 21st, just 33 minutes later than the official moment of winter solstice, and at the very same time that the sun moves into its deep winter sign of Capricorn.

kalymnos77 / Flickr Creative Commons

This second week of early winter brings to a close the Season of Bittersweet Shedding and the Corn and Soybean Harvest Season. Leafdrop Season is complete for almost every tree. In the garden, Strawberry Mulching Season complements Herb Transplanting Season, the time to transfer oregano, rosemary, parsley, thyme and sage to indoor pots.

Mike Hiatt / Flickr Creative Commons

The old year of sprouting, growing and producing fruit has fallen away with the leaves and the end of harvest, and the first week of early winter marks the beginning of a new cycle in Earth’s spin around the sun.

Shawn Harquail / Flickr Creative Commons

Throughout North America, sunset reaches its earliest time of the year as the sun moves deeper into Sagittarius, and the waxing Sandhill Crane Migration Moon hurries migration time for the last of the birds.

The mornings are often silent now – no birdsong – no cricket song, and into that silence, into the basket of the whole year, gently, instinctively, I place all of the other signs and moons and suns, filling it way over the top with what and whom those phases have nurtured from the beginning.

Mark Lorch / Flickr Creative Commons

The old year in nature is coming to a close, and on Saturday, the 22nd, the sun’s entry into Sagittarius, its apparent position closest to the horizon, announces the beginning of the end. And also on the 22nd, the moon becomes the Sandhill Crane Migration Moon the last of the migration moons and the gateway to the new great cycle.

And even though this wintry moon and the sun’s entry into Sagittarius forecast sleet and gloom, I sometimes retreat from the future into the warmest of my late Novembers.

Martin LaBar / Flickr Creative Commons

While the moon darkens, turning from gibbous to crescent throughout the week, entering its fourth quarter on November 14th, it shadows Jupiter the morning star and takes down the last of the ginkgoes and the white mulberries and the silver maples. It colors the beeches and oaks and zelcovas and decorative pears with rust and gold, hurries the frogs and toads to reach their winter havens, silences the latest crickets of the year.

mshipp / Flickr Creative Commons

The stars are a steady, accessible natural calendar and reveal the state of the landscape as well as the weather or trees or plants. With an inexpensive star chart or a sky map from the Internet, you can tell the time of year from your own yard, watch the sky bring on late autumn, early winter, deep winter, later winter, early spring.

k4dordy / Flickr Creative Commons

This is the second week of the Toad and Frog Migration Moon, the second week of the Sun in Scorpio.  And this is also the week that Daylight Savings Time ends throughout the country, clocks falling back an hour at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, and making the mornings a little brighter for the next month or so, more like the mornings of early fall.

The evenings, though, become winter dark as sundown is suddenly moved up to within just a few minutes of its solstice setting.

Mike Deal / Flickr Creative Commons

Tonight, when Earth crosses the vast remains of Halley’s Comet, it reveals that debris as the Orionid meteors, shooting past the post-midnight sword and shield of the constellation Orion in the southeast.

Then on Thursday, October 23rd, the dark Toad and Frog Migration Moon replaces the Hickory Nutting Moon, calling the last of the toads and frogs to find their winter habitats, often the same location in which they emerged as tadpoles.

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