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.

Ways To Connect

ephien / Flickr Creative Commons

So here is a little of my daybook history from this day in the third week of late summer:

2011: Cardinals called from about 5:15 this morning for about twenty minutes, hummingirds moved in on the feeders before sunrise, then the sparrow flock arrived, the rhythm of their leader about fifty-five chirps a minute, a little slower than I found in middle summer. No robins for a long time, disappeared a month ago as the rains stopped and heat in the 90s lasted day after day.

Pavlina Jane / Flickr Creative Commons

Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s book about native customs in Australia, describes how aboriginal peoples made their way through the wilderness using memorized maps of story and song handed down from generation to generation.

Naming all the things in one’s route could assure the ancient travelers’ direction and survival.

luschei / Flickr Creative Commons

Although late summer occurs at different times and at different increments in different places, the first week of that season is almost always ragweed season. In the Deep South ragweed time may occur in July, and in along the Canadian border later in August.

Whenever it blooms ragweed goes with ripe blackberries in the brambles and grapes on arbors. Spicebush Berry Season, Privet Berry Season, Greenbrier Berry Season, and Poison Ivy Berry Season complement the ragweed, too.

colinsd40 / Flickr Creative Commons

Everything in nature continues to converge as middle summer moves to a close, the coincidences becoming almost phenological laws, dictating that when one thing happens, something else is happening too.

When spiders start to increase their building of web, then yellow jacket season begins in the windfall apples and plums.

When honeysuckle berries ripen, and hickory nuts and green acorns and black walnuts drop to the ground, then gardeners dig their potatoes.

Hickory Nut
Laurie Hulsey / Flickr Creative Commons

I watch the history of July unfold, approaching its climax: yellowing locust and buckeye leaves and the browning garlic mustard, reddening Judas maples and Virginia creeper leaves, shiny spicebush, boxwood, greenbrier, and poison ivy berries forming, wild cherries darkening.

David DeHetre / Flickr Creative Commons

One of the basic tenets of phenology, the awareness of what happens when in nature, is that comparisons almost always begin at home.

Since seasonal time depends on a combination of location and climate, natural history in any familiar location provides a kind of central point from which to estimate the advance or retreat of the year toward or from one’s home as well as toward or from other places.

superbatfish / Flickr Creative Commons

It is common in today’s counsel about meditation that one should not focus on any of the ideas or feelings that surface during the session but rather to allow them all to simply pass through the mind. And when the meditator clings to one thought or emotion, that lapse is sometimes called “monkey mind,” a mind that jumps from one image to another, foiling the whole purpose of the meditation.

Henry T. McLin / Flickr Creative Commons

In the time of aphelion, when Earth is farthest from the sun:

When timothy forage is bearded with seeds, when almost all the lilies bloom, and the first rose of Sharon and butterfly bush, bouncing bets and water plantain, woodland ginseng and the gray-headed coneflower and the small-flowered agrimony and the spotted touch-me-not come into flower.

When summer peaches summer apples ripen and elderberries set fruit. When blueberries turn blue.

Samantha Durfee / Flickr Creative Commons

The Firefly Moon is waxing it calls out the fireflies when the grass is moist in the night and the humidity is high and thick. As the moon waxes, it draws a vast high-pressure system down from the northwest, sometimes chilling the last days of June, offering cool but deceptive respite before the Dog Days of July and then inciting the turbulence of the Corn Tassel Rains that lodge the uncut wheat fields and turn the new corn lush and fertile.

Alias 0591 / Flickr Creative Commons

Under lunar darkness, robins begin their pre-dawn chant, just as the constellation Cepheus moves due south of the North Star; when Delphinus, the Dolphin, passes overhead between Pegasus and Lyra; when the Pleiades show on the eastern horizon; and when Sagittarius follows Scorpio into the far west.

It is an easy step to connect the position of these morning stars with the state of the landscape, with, for example, the greening winter wheat across the nation’s midsection or the ripening of pie cherries throughout the East.