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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.

closeup of pink thistle
Joshua Mayer / Flickr Creative Commons

These are the longest days of the year, and Thursday the 21st is solstice, the peak of the solar tide, splitting Earth time in two, the Sun leaving Early Summer and Gemini, entering Deep Summer and Cancer.

Obscured by daylight, the consellations that accompany the sign of  Cancer during the day include Orion in the middle of the southern sky at noon, the potent Dog Star, Sirius, low behind him. Pisces lies in the west, Leo in the east, Draco in the north.

idintify media / Flickr Creative Commons

In Nature wrote the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie,nothing is insignificant, nothing ignoble, nothing sinful, nothing repetitious. All the music is great music, all the lines have meaning.

So far deep into Gemini, I seek out the music. Looking for Deep Summer, I collect and collect more  pieces of the season, watching them accumulate, none of them insignificant.

And so I lay them out in my mind, building a daybook on which to place leaves, birdsong, butterflies until all the lines and spaces are filled.

young grackle
DaPuglet Pugs / Flickr Creative Commons

By this moment in the year, when the Gemini Sun has almost completed its ascent to solstice...so many things are happening all around us...and we are, in a way, what we experience.  And so here is our horoscope:

maple seeds
Linda Owens / Flickr Creative Commons

The Daddy Longlegs Moon becomes totally full as it rises at dusk today, passing overhead throughout the night, cooling the evenings but still inviting walks and courting and memories in its light. As the Moon comes up shining in the east, Venus offers counterpoint as the giant evening star in the far west, and Jupiter, in Libra along the southern tree line, balances Polaris in the north.

Under this Gemini sky, after peonies come in and the flowers of the yellow poplar open, past the decline of poppies, then the last leaves of the canopy cover almost all of the United States. 

Colin and Sarah Northway / Flickr Creative Commons

The Sun climbs past a declination of 21 degrees 54 minutes by the end of May, a little more than 90 percent of the way to solstice. These are the longest days of the year – the highest solar tide on Earth

The Sun entered the Early Summer sign of Gemini on May 20, and when the Sun reaches that constellation, then blackberries are flowering, and the last of the leaves come out for summer.

Vinylone / Flickr Creative Commons

The Swarming Termite Moon, becoming the Daddy Longlegs Moon on today, May 15 at 6:47 a.m., waxes throughout the week ahead, reaching powerful perigee (its position closest to Earth) on May 17.

Mark Bonica / Flickr Creative Commons

My furnace is in the attic of my house, a place that is always warm in the coldest weather. During the later winter and early spring, I plant seeds under grow lights there: geraniums, petunias, castor beans, calla lilies, bananas, dahlias. The warmth of the lights and the air helps them to sprout, and the spring green of their leaves always makes me feel good.

JanetF / Flickr Creative Commons

Middle Spring cedes to Late Spring, and under the closing canopy and the Eta Aquarid shooting stars: the wild phlox are purple and the swamp ragwort is gold. May apples and spring cress flower.  Wild ginger, meadow rue, bellwort, bluets, Jack-in-the pulpit, nodding trillium, larkspur and thyme-leafed speedwell are still blossoming. The sticky catchweed replaces chickweed. Thyme and horseradish open in the herb garden. Lily-of-the-valley and star of Bethlehem push out from their buds. 

Hamner_Fotos / Flickr Creative Commons

When the Sun comes into Taurus, then it is Late Spring almost everwhere along the 40th Parallel. Even though the chill of the full Swarming Termite Moon increases the likelihood of frost,  chances for a high above 70s degrees are now 50/50 or better for the first time this year all across the nation’s midsection.

clock face
Christian Reichert / Flickr Creative Commons

Keeping a notebook of what happens every day in the small world around me, I often think about the cyclical quality of events in nature. The repeating quality of the sky and the landscape, is something similar to what sociologist Charles Taylor describes, in his book, A Secular Age, as "Higher Time" (as opposed to linear, “Secular Time”).

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